March 7, 2023 - 10:13am

Earlier this month, Ukrainian-aligned sabotage forces crossed into Russia’s Bryansk region and conducted a lethal military operation. Though the casualty figures remain unclear, Russian media reported that civilians were shot, and security forces subsequently engaged the attackers. The military incursion occurred just days after a series of attempted drone attacks on Russian soil and an operation targeting an airbase in Belarus. It later surfaced that a contingent involved in the Bryansk raid identified as part of the Russian Volunteer Corps in videos released during the shootout.

The militia said: “the Russian Volunteer Corps crossed the state border of the Russian Federation 
 Now it’s time for the regular Russian citizens to realise they are not slaves. Start a mutiny, fight!” A second video was released in which two other militants were seen holding up the group’s flag with gunfire raging in the background, claiming that they are a “liberating army for our homeland” and impugned “Putin’s army” as comprising “rapists and murderers.” Like the first video, they called upon Russians to “take up arms and fight against Putin, the Kremlin, the bloody regime,” signing off with: “Death to the Kremlin’s tyrant!”

Ukrainian authorities denied responsibility for the attack. However, Denis Nikitin, the alleged leader of the Russian Volunteer Corps, claimed that the operation was approved by their host government in Kyiv. Nikitin stated that, in addition to inciting other Russian nationals to commit anti-state violence, the operation was designed to expose Russia’s border security weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Without substantiating, he claimed that the militants who slipped into the country linked up with domestic Russian partisans.

The assault was also geared toward recruitment and bolstering their ranks inside and outside of Russia. Elements of the Russian Volunteer Corps are overtly sympathetic to neo-Nazi ideology and praise Hitler on Telegram. The militia is part of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces and was formed in 2022 from Russian volunteers who had been fighting for the Azov Brigade and other groups in the Donbas since the start of hostilities in 2014. Colin Clarke, Director of Research for the Soufan Group, told UnHerd:

Any time there is an attack by a group so ideologically hardcore, the goal is to raise the profile of the ideology and the group’s objectives, and to bring new members into the organisation. It’s also likely to be a PR disaster of sorts for Ukraine, because it plays into Putin’s disinformation narratives around de-Nazification.
- Colin Clarke

The attack undoubtedly raised the group’s profile, prompting a surge in media coverage and a boost in social media promotion. Nikitin’s “White Powder” Telegram channel grew to over 17,000 followers, while the Russian Volunteer Corps’ official channel has almost reached 45,000 subscribers. Seeking to capitalise on their publicity, Nikitin and his men have sought to ramp up fundraising efforts, with groups like the hard Right ‘Ultras Not Reds’ hooligan channel urging its over 11,000 followers to join the group and support them financially. The Azov-linked Misanthropic Division likewise celebrated the group’s actions.

The Russian hard Right is split in supporting and opposing Moscow and the invasion of Ukraine. Groups such as Rusich and WPRS are actively participating in Russia’s military campaign, while the Russian Volunteer Corps are fighting on the side of Ukraine. The latter crowd disapproves of Russia, viewing it as a multi-racial and ethnically pluralistic imperial power attacking a predominantly white sovereign country.

It is too early to tell how effective the Bryansk attack will be in leading to further attacks within Russia. But since Bryansk, the group’s attacks have become more brazen: this week, the FSB claimed that it had thwarted an assassination attempt against Konstantin Malofeev, founder of Russian Orthodox TV network Tsargrad, by the Russian Volunteer Corps. Given the unprecedented media attention it has been receiving along with Ukraine’s strategy of cross-border raids, we can certainly expect to see more attacks of this nature in the future.

Lucas Webber is the co-founder and editor of Militant Wire