What is the Freedom of Russia Legion?
Some 100 fighters in armored vehicles crossed into Russia from Ukrainian territory May 22 and seized the town of Kozinka in Belgorod oblast. They were only driven out after Russian forces responded with fighter planes and artillery, and Moscow says its troops are still "mopping up saboteurs." Two groups claimed responsibility for the raid, both said to be made up of Russians who are fighting for Ukraine. One is the self-proclaimed Freedom of Russia Legion, which released a video message to coincide with the attack, calling on Russians to take up arms "to put an end to the Kremlin's dictatorship."
The other is the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), characterized as far-right nationalists—although this does raise the question of why they are fighting for Ukraine. The Anti-Defamation League website identifies the RDK's leader Denis Kapustin AKA Denis Nikitin as "a Russian neo-Nazi" with ties to Ukraine's Azov Battalion.
Social media posts are identifying other far-right militants apparently fighting in the RDK. One is Aleksey Levkin of the rock band M8L8TH (said to be code for "Hitler's Hammer"), key organizer of the annual National-Socialist Black Metal festival in Kyiv and leading personality behind Wotanjugend, a social media platform for Russian neo-Nazis.
But the Freedom of Russia Legion appears to also have far-right connections. The Guardian identifies its leader as Maximillian Andronnikov, apparently a former member of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM)—which is fighting on the Russian side in Ukraine.
On the other hand, Deutsche Welle names another Legion leader as the seemingly more liberal Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the State Duma who was the only Russian lawmaker to vote against the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He went into exile in 2016 (presumably in Ukraine).
Ponomarev acknowledges in an interview with France24 that the Belgorod raid was a "joint operation" with the RDK. He also boasts that no member of their joint force was killed in the operation. He boldly predicts: "At the end of the day there will just be one outcome—our guys will be in Moscow, and Putin will not be in the Kremlin."
Ponomarev is challenged by the France24 interviewer about his supposed ties to one National Republican Army, which has apparently claimed responsibility for the recent assassinations of pro-war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky and Moscow state media mouthpiece Daria Dugina, daughter of Russo-nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin. Asked if this constituted "terrorism," as claimed by the Kremlin, Ponomarev responds: "No, we are conducting a counter-terrorist operation. The terrorist state is Russia."
Noting that Vladimir Putin is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Ponomarev openly stated: "We are attacking the key people of his regime. Its key ideologists, its key propagandists, its key organizers, its key financers, its key military officers."
The RDK also claimed an early March armed incursion into Russia's Bryansk oblast, also on the Ukrainian border. Russia's FSB security service initially blamed that attack on "Ukrainian nationalists." Kyiv, in turn, accused Russia of staging a fake "provocation."
In the Belgorod raid, Kyiv has merely denied involvement, but seemed to acknowledge the actors as legitimate. Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak suggested that they are "underground guerrilla groups...composed of Russian citizens."
Deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council Dmitry Medvedev responded to the new incursion in his inimitable way, telling official TASS news agency that the "rat bastards" who infiltrated Belgorod must be "exterminated."
He also rejected Ukraine's denials: "Whatever chatter you hear from Kiev about how sabotage attacks of this kind have nothing to do with them, it is all a lie, of course. An absolute lie. The responsibility...lies with the Kiev regime and ultimately with its sponsors across the ocean, i.e. Washington, and the European Union countries together with states like Britain and others. This is their direct and immediate responsibility." (BBC News, PRI, Jurist, Pravda, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Hill, France24)
Whether US-supplied weaponry was used in the Belgorod incursion has become a volatile question. Washington says it is investigating after images published on the internet appeared to show US-made Humvee and MaxxPro vehicles supposedly abandoned by the incursion force.
State Department representative Matthew Miller said the US is "skeptical at this time of the veracity of these reports," which he said emerged from "armchair intelligence analysts" based on "fuzzy pictures on social media." He added: "We do not encourage or enable strikes inside of Russia and we've made that clear. But as we've also said, it's up to Ukraine to decide how to conduct this war." (Kyiv Independent, ABC News)
In another of his requisite nuclear threats, Medvedev on May 23 warned that the more powerful the weapons the West supplies to Ukraine, the higher the risk of "nuclear apocalypse." (Thomson Reuters) This is obviously a reference to Washington's recent decision to allow its Western allies to supply Ukraine with US-made fighter jets, including F-16s. The US will also train Kyiv's pilots to use the warplanes. (BBC News)
These developments come amid further unsettling signs of internal opposition to Putin from the right. Immediately after his claim of victory in capturing the devastated Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, paramilitary Wagner Group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin warned that Putin's war could backfire and lead to the destabilization of Russia.
In an interview with pro-war blogger and "political operative" (apparently in the Murmansk oblast administration) Konstantin Dolgov, Prigozhin said: "We are in a situation where we can simply lose Russia... We must introduce martial law. We unfortunately…must announce new waves of mobilization; we must put everyone who is capable to work on increasing the production of ammunition. Russia needs to live like North Korea for a few years, so to say, close the borders…and work hard." (WaPo)
Moscow-Kyiv drone wars
Drones hit Moscow in the early hours of May 30, in the first attack on residential areas of the Russian capital since the start of the war. Luxury homes and a property owned by Vladimir Putin were within the taregted areas. Putin blamed Ukraine for the "terrorist attacks." This comes weeks after an alleged drone attack on the Kremlin itself and after days of deadly Russian bombardment of civilians in Kyiv. (NBC News, Moscow Times)
Russia unleashed the biggest drone attack against Kyiv of the war so far May 27, te eve of major celebration for the annual Kyiv Day. The Ukrainian military said almost all the some 54 Iranian-made Shahed drones were shot down. (The Guardian, i24)