Since 2014, the opportunity to confront the Kremlin on the battlefield has attracted Russians with a range of radical political views. These have included everything from anarchists to neo-Nazis arriving to fight for Ukraine.  

However, the factions most visible in the cross-border raids on Western Russian territory that ended on May 23 are of distinct far-right orientation. (The raids resumed on June 1, with apparent fighting in the town of Shebekino.) Confusingly, both Putin and his opponents from Ukraine-based Russian militias describe themselves as nationalists fighting for the Russian people. The war in Ukraine has therefore developed not only into a clash between Moscow and Kyiv but also as a battleground for conflicting versions of Russian nationalism. 

Responsibility for the recent attacks on the Belgorod and Bryansk regions was claimed by the Russian Volunteer Corps, a Russian nationalist group, which identifies itself as a “part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Group members advocate for an “ethnic” concept of the Russian nation and maintain what they term “right-conservative” and “traditionalist” beliefs. The leader of the corps Denis Kapustin (Nikitin) advertises Ukraine as a place where “white nationalists” can take up arms and fight for their values.  

A second group that claimed to be engaged in the Belgorod incursion was the Freedom of Russia Legion. This unit states that it “acts under the leadership of the Ukrainian command”, but there is still no consensus among reputable military experts as to whether the group actually exists as a full-fledged military unit. The legion proclaims that it fights for a “New Russia” and for “democratic values”, however, Russian nationalism also seems to form a prominent component of its ideology.  

Thus, Russian nationalists are fighting on both sides of the conflict. The distinction between imperial and ethnic nationalisms does not help to resolve the confusion. For example, Putin’s arguments supporting his attack on Ukraine conform to an “ethnic” concept of the Russian nation, which, in Putin’s interpretation, encompasses “the Velikorussians, the Malorussians, and the Belorussians” (the greater, lesser and white Russians.) For Putin, who calls himself the “true nationalist”, the war against Ukraine is imagined not so much as a war to regain a colony for his empire but rather a war to restore an organic ethnic unity.  

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A better way to grasp the difference between the two Russian nationalisms that now clash on the battlefield is to distinguish between state-framed and counter-state nationalisms. The first imagines the nation as an entity that is institutionally informed by the state, framed by it, and congruent with it. In contrast, for counter-state nationalism, the nation is imagined in opposition to some existing state, to its territorial and institutional frame. 

The radical ethnonationalism of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), unlike Putin’s “true nationalism”, certainly belongs to the second type. RVC fighters seek not so much to seize power in the Russian Federation or restore its greatness as to tear down this entity altogether and reinvent Russia as a “smaller, ethnic Russian state”. 

A shared central goal of dismantling Putin’s regime makes it possible for some Russian opposition groups to seek collaboration with the RVC, at least in the short term. In particular, the Civic Council, a Poland-based Russian initiative, claims to cooperate with RVC in facilitating Russian citizens to enter Ukraine and join Kyiv-led forces.  

At the same time, however, it is difficult to imagine a triumph of RVC-style radical ethnonationalism as anything other than a disaster in the long term. In particular, it would likely result in a catastrophe for non-Russian minorities of Russia. 

On the surface, the nationalist ideas of the RVC, with its promise to abandon “territories where there are practically no Russians left”, might seem compatible with some projects of decolonizing Russia. For example, it could accord with Chechen independence since Russians constitute less than 2% of the population. However, it is difficult to reconcile radical Russian ethnonationalist solutions with the rights of non-Russian minorities in areas of the Russian Federation where there are larger proportions of Russians. RVC’s vision of an ethnic Russian state “without multinational cuckoldism” hardly suggests a peaceful divorce. 

For these reasons, it is likely that RVC ideology will be an obstacle to a broader anti-Putin militia crystalizing around it. Kapustin’s far-right radicalism will inevitably make him a difficult ally for other anti-Putin forces. So, while the RVC might be a militarily capable unit that is useful for Kyiv in the short term, its future may be more contentious.  

Moreover, in the medium term, even the cooperation between the RVC and the Ukrainian government might turn out to be problematic. If the weapons provided to Ukraine by the United States and the EU countries end up in the hands of Russian far-right militias attacking Russian territory, it might hinder Kyiv’s efforts to secure future supplies. 

This does not mean, however, that counter-state Russian nationalism has no positive long-term role for Russia and Ukraine. Some version of counter-state nationalism that centers the people as a political subject will probably be necessary to build any viable democratic alternative to Putin’s Russia. This alternative does not need to be based on the ethnic concept of the nation.  

Counter-state nationalism can amount to a civic alternative. It can be based on respect for human rights, the right to self-determination, and democratic principles. Moreover, a collective counter-state action, such as a broad anti-war resistance movement and anti-government militia, can itself cultivate a participatory concept of the civic nation, in contrast to both ethnic and imperial alternatives. 

Ivan Fomin is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and a Non-Resident Fellow of the IERES Russia Research Initiative at George Washington University. Previously, he was an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. He participated in projects at the Jagiellonian University, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, and Ruhr University Bochum. He holds a Candidate of Sciences degree in political science. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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