09.10.23 Review

Perplexed Patriots: The war in Ukraine has lead to further fragmentation of the Russian nationalist front

In a departure from the initial phases of the war, when Russian nationalists acted as a kind of mouthpiece for the pro-war agenda and sounded in unison with the official narrative, the latter part of 2022 and the first half of 2023 have seen oppositional and critically-minded nationalist factions and groups garnering the most media attention. Chief among these are radical groups prepared to engage, even militarily, against the regime while aligning themselves with 'Ukrainian nationalism'. Such sentiments are not limited to just the Russian Volunteer Corps. Even among the parts of the nationalist spectrum that initially supported the war and sought to increase their influence and prominence, a faction has gradually shifted towards a position of harsh criticism of the government for its inability to conduct the war effectively and achieve results. These 'enraged patriots' even attempted to organise this branch of Russian nationalism formally. However, from the spring, and especially after the Prigozhin and Wagner uprising, the authorities began a repressive campaign against this part of the right-wing spectrum. Thus, it can be said that the war has not led to consolidation but rather further fragmentation of Russian nationalism.

The second year of the war has witnessed a significant restructuring of Russian nationalism, according to an expert review by Vera Alperovich of the 'Sova' Center. By the end of 2022, it was apparent that support for the war had allowed Russian nationalists to emerge from their usual marginalisation, with their agendas becoming nearly indistinguishable from the official discourse, essentially turning into factories churning out semi-official narratives. However, over the course of the past nine months, the situation has evolved, Alperovich writes, with the greatest media attention now being paid to organised anti-regime groups among the nationalists.

The actions of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), led by prominent far-right activist Denis Kapustin (Nikitin), have garnered the greatest public response in 2023. It is worth noting that the majority of RVC members identify as neo-Nazis and relocated to Ukraine long ago, gaining widespread attention after their raid into the Bryansk region in March 2023. Two more raids into Russian territory followed two months after that particular incident. Moreover, it appears there was a group of nationalists among the ranks of radical opponents to the regime who, according to law enforcement, were planning an assassination attempt on TV host Vladimir Solovyov and other prominent propagandists. According to official sources, this group acted on the orders of the Security Service of Ukraine, and among those detained were former members of neo-Nazi groups who had served sentences for racially motivated murders. Further, in the spring of this year, several members of Vyacheslav Maltsev's 'Artillery Preparation' (Artpodgotovka) movement were arrested after calling for the release of foil-wrapped balloons to disrupt Russia's air defence system.

From the very outset of the conflict, a number of nationalist groups have not supported the war, among these are Vladimir Basmanov's Nationalist Movement, which condemned the invasion as 'destructive for Russia and Russian nationalism'. In April of this year, Basmanov was criminally prosecuted and the organisation's offices were searched. A month later, the organisation announced its self-dissolution. However, as we can see, radical nationalists have shifted towards opposing the regime, including via armed resistance, and view Ukrainian nationalism as ideologically aligned with their views.

Moreover, even among nationalists who initially supported the war, the landscape has significantly changed. Whereas in the first year of the war, nationalists felt like a mouthpiece for pro-war sentiments and a vanguard of the government, now, they can be divided into two camps. The first camp of nationalists has actively engaged in pro-war activism, encouraged by the authorities, which has involved assisting refugees, residents of war-affected regions, and the military. Additionally, they are involved in recruitment, training, and sending volunteers to the front lines. 'As part of these activities, they are cultivating horizontal ties and contacts within the military, as well as expanding their audience among ordinary people,' Alperovich writes. However, when it comes to media coverage, they tend to blend into the overall flow of militaristic activism, which aligns closely with the official discourse.

Conversely, the most noticeable and rapidly growing audience has been that of the nationalists who fall into the second camp – the 'angry patriots' – who criticise the government for its inability to effectively conduct the war and achieve decisive results. Over the past year, various forms of critical narratives have emerged, often uniting characters who were once at odds (such as Strelkov and Prigozhin) and different factions. However, nationalists' attitude toward Prigozhin himself and his brief and colourful political campaign was contradictory. They admired his image as a 'true patriot-warrior' and a fearless critic of the authorities, but they were put off by his total disregard for the Russian army.

This segment of the nationalist spectrum attempted to self-organise, announcing the creation of the 'Club of Angry Patriots' in April, issuing its manifesto. The club aimed to resist those in power and big business who had 'moved their capital and loyalty to the West... and are ready for sabotage and direct collusion with the enemy, and therefore, betrayal.' However, from the spring of 2023, and especially after the Prigozhin uprising, the authorities began to crack down on those who fell within this part of the nationalist spectrum. The most striking and significant event of this campaign was the arrest of Strelkov.

In other regards, anti-migrant rhetoric remains one of the primary topics of conversation in the Russian nationalist information space. 'Sova's' regular reports indicate that, in less than six months of 2023, there were 76 reported cases of attacks motivated by hate, three death threats, and one murder. Nationalists continue to organise public actions with corresponding agendas, albeit on a significantly smaller scale than before the war. For instance, in Tyumen, a march took place near the building of the Union of Armenians of the Tyumen Region, where participants shouted xenophobic slogans. Nationalists held solitary pickets in major cities in support of Igor Strelkov, who was arrested in July. Several individuals also recorded appeals in his defence from the war zone. 'Sova' reported 13 cases of xenophobic vandalism in the first half of 2023. For example, in June, in the village of Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Region, unknown individuals destroyed the gravestones at a Roma cemetery, and two months later in Yekaterinburg, a memorial at the site of the death of a graduate student from Gabon, whose murder was racially motivated, was desecrated. Nevertheless, the authorities are being quite diligent in their pursuit of nationalist extremism. 'Sova' have reported 161 convictions for public statements since the beginning of the year, in cases involving 184 individuals.