Russians against Russia. Who are Putin’s fellow countrymen supporting the Ukraine?

Fratricidal fights are among the most horrible, the most cruel and the most devastating both for the combatants and their country of origin. To wage of a civil war requires extraordinary hatred because one has to fight against „their own”.

Smoke over Belgorod has settled down but we still know little. What we do know is that last week, on May 23rd, a sabotage group composed of soldiers from the Russian Voluntary Corps (RVC) and the Free Russia Legion (formed on Ukrainian soil of former PoWs turned volunteers) declared “open fight with Vladimir Putin’s regime” – and confirmed it by an action: a strike on the Ukraine-Russia border which made a small “dent” in the frontline.

The dent may seem small compared to the size of both countries, but one can quip half in jest: “It is small in the scale of the whole front, but great for…”. Indeed, for whom? For this war’s history? For the history of Russia?

The sabotage group, 80 to 110 strong and equipped with light armoured vehicles, made a raid through several border villages. It reached outskirts of Grayvoron town (6000 inhabitants) and controlled for several hours small hamlets of Kozinka, Ponury, Gora-Podol, Zariche. Helicopters supporting the Legion allegedly got as far as Belgorod (35 kilometers farther) sparking panic. The district governor declared “a state of special terrorist operation”. His wife was seen in a car leaving the city – though it was difficult to cut through crowds of residents pouring in the same direction.

Forward on Grayvoron!

The place of the strike was chosen perfectly: surrounded with rivers and marshes Grayvoron is a sort of a far-flung outpost. 20 kilometers to the north-east, in the vicinity of Antonovka, lies a Russian store facility where nuclear weapons are allegedly kept. Panicking refugees on the roads pushed against the flow of troops speeding towards border troops commanded by famously awkward general Lapin. In Belgorod itself buildings of local administration and FSB quarters were supposedly hit by incendiary shells launched from helicopters.

According to other delicious if unconfirmed reports the legionaries intercepted a Russian jamming system R-330Zh Zhitel. Such loot in a cyberwar era equals to a capture of both a regiment’s paymaster chest and a codebook.

After completing of the operation on Thursday night the saboteurs’ representatives organized a short briefing on the Ukrainian side of the border. They arrived in a trophy armoured personnel carrier BTR-8, admitted to two troops KIA and several wounded and declared further incursions on “the territory temporarily occupied by Putin’s regime”. And then on Friday they made a “field trip” to Glotovo village.

Of course there are numerous other reports, gossips and rumours citing other locations where supposedly “microinvasions” took place, but they are still to be verified. Even the abovementioned facts have been questioned, embellished and reinterpreted: Russian side claims killing several dozen of “aggressors” (though it presented no proof), but it ceased to maintain that they were Ukrainian. Even though Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon mentioned “Ukrainian saboteurs” (“Work is underway to squeeze out Ukrainian saboteurs from Russian territory and destroy this sabotage group"), 24 hours later he had to admit with a sigh that “Ukrainian combatants continue actions against our country. It requires great effort from us, but this effort is continued”.

Booty exhibition?

Russians have amassed a whole cemetery of supposedly “trophy” armoured vehicles (from Humvees to MaxxPros), though social media observers have already noticed that as for an equipment freshly hauled from the battlefield it seemed a bit too dusty, and therefore more probably hauled from some storage facility. But showing a handful of smashed Humvees and overstating the number of enemy losses are just the most trivial actions in the disinformation operation we are still unable to see through.

The consequences of the raids are much more significant than just a capture of Grayvoron or burning down of the Belgorod archive. On the operational level Moscow, on the eve of probable Ukrainian counter offensive, has to make major forces’ shifts in order to guard its border. It means a serious depletion of its shrinking human and equipment resources – and possibly the need to modify defence plans against the expected Ukrainian counter offensive.

On the other hand the Ukrainian side can celebrate a huge propagandist success. Not only because “the Belgorod field trip” has completely “shut out” the fall of Bakhmut, but in the first place because it helps turn around Moscow’s propaganda from the first days of the invasion or even from the time of the Crimea capture. “Ukraine is watching the events in the Belgorod region of Russia with interest and studying the situation, but it has nothing to do with it. As you know, tanks are sold at any Russian military store, and underground guerrilla groups are composed of Russian citizens”, commented on Wednesday Mykhaylo Podolyak, Ukrainian presidential adviser. The author of the blog „Ukraina: wojna”, one of the most interesting Polish-language sources on the situation on the frontline, called it a “masterpiece of political trolling” – and it’s hard not to agree with him. The phrase “Russian military store” is truly a masterpiece.

Still it tells us nothing about the force, status, chances and above all the authenticity of the Legion and the Corps. Who are they? Where do they come from – i.e. what are their political affiliations and what reasons led them to fight under their own flag? What do they want? And above all: are they real?

One million volunteers

These are relevant questions, especially in the part of the world which has experienced communism – a system, despite its apparent puritanism, ripe with fictions, alleged existences and “non-partisan sympathisers” – shortly: with masquerades. Older readers will undoubtedly remember so called Chinese People’s Volunteer Army which appeared in northern Korea in autumn 1950 soon after UN formations crossed the 38th parallel of latitude.

Peking has never admitted the total number of its forces but Western analyses estimate it for 1,2 million troops reinforced by heavy artillery and tanks. Nice Chinese spontaneity! But also our side of the Ural has known false volunteers, appeals for fraternal help and workers’ teams. Disinformation during a war is merely one more type of weaponry. So maybe the Legion and the Corps are just some Ukrainian commando who temporarily changed their uniforms to spread confusion behind Russian frontline and inside Russian heads?

I guess not. Of course one cannot be sure, as during the war-time information filtering and in the era of cybergenerated images it is possible to create make-believes misleading millions of viewers. One does even need to change uniforms, it is enough to order some badges “in any military store”, write several press releases and interviews… Who would reproach Kyiv for such an action if it spread confusion?

It would be more difficult to dupe hard-working Russian intelligence feeding Moscow’s propaganda apparatus with data. Despite Peskov’s harangues about “Ukrainian saboteurs”, the official propaganda does mention the Legion and the Corps – of course in the bleakest tones. And the very existence of Russians ready to resist Putin arm in hand is extremely embarrassing for Moscow, so it would be natural to pass it over or cover it with some lies like so many other inconvenient facts.

Even more, the Russian volunteer formations have already been interviewed by foreign reporters (naturally on conditions dictated by their Ukrainian host) – even if the amount of facts gathered hardly makes a Wikipedia entry.

Which is fully understandable. We know it from history: partisan or volunteer formations – routinely accused by their enemies of being a masquerade, a guise for neighbouring state forces or a fiction dreamed up by losers – to prove their authenticity need a high-ranking military or famous activist leader. Take for example General Henryk Dąbrowski in Polish Legions during Napoleonic period or Brigadier Józef Piłsudski, also in Polish Legions but later. Or General Władysław Sikorski in London. Or, on a more modest scale, major Henryk Dobrzański.

Name and rank

Such solution, however, is possible only if your family does not live behind enemy lines – at least when your enemy is Putin. Russians would be delighted to find out the identity of any combatants. In April 2022 journalists reporting on the war in Ukraine mentioned as one of the Legion’s commanders lieutenant colonel Sergey Sergeyevich Kosik of 14th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment. But it seems a mistake – a person of the same name and rank still figures on Ukrainian lists of Russian soldiers wanted on war crime charges. Is it a cover-up? If so, then not very credible.
Russian Liberation Army (ROA) soldiers in the northern France in 1944. Photo Wikimedia/ Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-297-1704-10 / Müller, Karl / CC-BY-SA 3.0. In the upper left corner – the ROA flag. Photo Wikimedia
As for others known by name – Anatoly Sergeevich Zyrenov from 58th RF Army stationed in Cchinvali in occupied part of Georgia; Aleksey Alexandrovich Skameykin from 70th Motorized Rifle Regiment in Chechen Shali and dozens of others one can see on “Telegram’s” channels – they are merely young privates. They have probably survived “the wave” [“dedovshtshina”] in the army and a nightmare of the poorly prepared offensive. They do not have parents already, they do not have girlfriends yet, so they joined the Legion. They are not famous enough to inspire anyone with their example.

But on the other hand are they so different from a typical Polish 20-year-old living somewhere around Jasło or Błonie, forcibly enlisted by Austrian army, then taken captive by the French and sent to serve under Kniaziewicz or Dąbrowski?

  Apart from Kosik, another higher officer known by name is the supposed commander of the Corps Denis Nikitin vel Kapustin. But also in this case one is tempted to deem it a cover-up or a discreditation attempt: even if we are sceptical of Russian reports, “Spiegel’s” articles and claims of the usually well-informed website, Nikitin/Kapustin remains a perfect image of a “far-right” activist: a former member of sport fan’s gang and an enthusiast of martial arts, a believer in “Russia for Russians” slogan and a producer of T-shirts with an “88” neo-Nazi puzzle. If he has grown in wisdom and nobility lately, he has kept this fact to himself.

An advancing Gulag

Against the claims of Moscow’s propaganda all of the above does not mean that Corps’ members are solely far-righters. In one of a few longer articles on this formation Roman Popkov, a Russian correspondent of Belsat, quotes anarchists and libertarians, human rights defenders and conservatives sounding exactly like Russian “cadets”, or members of Constitutional Democratic Party, from before 110 years. “I’m right-wing, but it is of no consequence now. Russia is a burnt-out land, you cannot be right-wing or left-wing there. You can be either a cop or a cop’s victim. We have left this neo-Soviet Gulag to go to Ukraine, but it is still on our heels. He [Putin] wants to make Ukraine another barrack in the camp like Russia. So enough of escaping, it is time to stand up and fight for our life and our honour”, says one of the interviewees in Belsat’s report. And his sentiments are repeated by interviewees of the AP and Reuters.

These are important words from the mouth of a 20-year-old, they can even serve a motto of a life and death struggle – but not a political programme for “the new Russia”. And we still know nothing about political views of those new formations.

So-called “Irpin declaration” signed on August 31st 2022 by the Legion, the Corps and even more enigmatic “National Republican Army” is merely a commitment to act together. The promised joint political centre has never been created; silent is also its supposed representative, 48-year-old Ilya Ponomarev, a man with extensive political experience (he has been a member of the Left Front and Gennady Zyuganov’s RF Communist Party, a deputy of oppositional Just Russia, a businessman in Yukos and a beneficiary of an affluent Skolovo Foundation).

The Corps went one step further, in a memo of November 2022 declaring recognition of the 1991 Ukrainian borders (important), support for the tribunal for war perpetrators (rather important), “a total reform of RF’s political system” (important, but what does it mean?) and “recognition and abiding by the right to self-determination of the RF nations” (extremely important).

But half a year has not brought any more details. And again we do not know the reason: is it the impermeable Ukrainian filter (“first prove yourself, then you will talk politics”), the divides between the eloquent but helpless emigrant Russian opposition and military men, not so fluent in discussions on political systems but sweating hard on exercise grounds – or maybe something else.

And yet – silent, divided and disorganized – 10 days ago they advanced on Kozinka and Grayvoron. We can expect other successful actions. And together with them the increase of the Legion and the Corps’ importance – both as formations active on the frontline and as a sign that Russians themselves can weaken Putin’s regime. In consequence they could become a partner in negotiations with the West and (a bit later) with Ukraine, able to demonstrate not only declarations, but also some trump cards in the form of cities they captured, formations they pulled on their side, the blood they shed.

Civil war scars

So the stake is high. But also great is the challenge facing Russian anti-Putin formations. And so are the problems – not only military ones (can anyone seriously envision a march on Moscow?) or related to supplies (Ukraine depends on weapons sent by the stingy West and Russian formations can count only on what they receive from Kyiv), but especially political and psychological.

Because battles of the Legion and the Corps with the regular Russian Army will not be just fratricidal fights, even though such clashes are among the most horrible, the most cruel and the most devastating both for the combatants and their country of origin. To wage of a civil war requires extraordinary hatred because one has to fight against „their own”.

The march on Belgorod and Moscow would be even more horrible than an “ordinary” civil war, like the one Russia has experienced on an immense scale in the years 1917-21. It would be an expedition in alliance with a state and a nation with which Russia is de facto at war. Of course, this war was started by Russia under the pretence of a “special operation”. Here Russia was the aggressor and the perpetrator – and should be punished.

But still.

Everyone who defies hated authorities governing their homeland tries to avoid doing it at any price. British supporters of Stuarts, though they availed themselves of the French king’s backing, did their best to not to land on the island’s shores arm in arm with French expeditionary corps (not always successfully). Several decades later French royalists, although understandably they had to accept help of monarchic Europe advancing on Jacobin France, tried to march „alongside” and act independently. And similarly many other formations and nations, from Greeks to Garibaldians.

Our folk and the others

Because so it is in this world. Quoting last lines of the famous Polish novella by Stefan Żeromski, we could name it “the curse of Wyszków parsonage”.

„He who has brought an ancient enemy to his – even sinful and evil – motherland; he who trampled on it, plundered it, burnt it, pillaged it with the hands of foreign marauders – he divested himself of his homeland. It cannot be anymore his home or place of his rest”.

Of course citing this fragment is an act of a very risky reinterpretation. Ukraine is not Russia’s “ancient enemy” and its army would rather not cross RF’s borders – not to mention “burning and pillaging” of Russian soil. But basic, tribal, black-and-white loyalties – “our folk” and “strangers” – immediately come to mind in such situation, along with horror at the thought of “ours marching hand in hand with strangers”.

Poland has known civil wars, but not so horrible. Legionaries of Dąbrowski and Piłsudski or insurgents of the January Uprising did not fight with Polish government (even a brutal and corrupted one), but with occupation authorities. Even when put before firing squads, hanged or sent to Siberia they were not perceived by their kinsmen as “traitors”, but rather (at the worst) as “lunatics”. Those few who allied with foreign rulers – like Hieronim Radziejowski and supporters of Targowica Confederation – inhabit the ninth circle of the national hell.

Russians, however, in a relatively close history had a “formation created and fighting side by side with their mortal enemy”. Paradoxically this tragic formation, crushed by historical necessities as if by millstones, has never clashed with the Red Army – if we do not count a two-day-long battle on Odra river in April 1945. What I have in mind is of course General Andrey Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army (ROA).

Destructive insult

On no account should it be confused with RONA (“Russian National Liberation Army”) composed of gangsters and degenerates, created under the auspices of SS by Bronislav Kaminski and responsible for Wola and Ochota Massacre in August 1944. Even historical publicists in Poland sometimes mix these two formations despite their different origins, political affiliations in the Third Reich and composition: RONA (like Wagner group) accepted criminals, ROA – half-starved PoWs and idealists who dreamt of overthrowing Stalin. Vlasov’s formation did not even station in Germany-occupied Poland. Still despite many years of educational efforts one sometimes can hear in Poland that “Vlasovtsy” were responsible for crimes committed by Nazis. In Russia the term is universally known – as are the circumstances of general Vlasov and his men’s death by hanging in Lubyanka. “I have lost and so they will call me a traitor until freedom prevails in Russia over Soviet patriotism” he said allegedly right before being handed over to Soviets by Americans.

With a knife, pillow, snuff box. How to kill a tsar

Later, just a secret, tongues ripped out, witnesses sent to hard labor and no nighttime conversations among fellow countrymen.

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Russian volunteer anti-Putin formations, if they were ever really to advance on Moscow – would have to fight nearly alone (it is hard to imagine any country supporting them with anything more than supplies or intelligence services) with a still operational army and a state, with troops speaking the same language and having the same cultural background – from bedtime cartoons through drinking beer in the courtyard to maturity exams. And what is more with people awaiting them with a ready insult, much stronger from Polish term “targowiczanie” (to such extent to which the year 1792 is more distant in time than the year 1945).

Do they stand any chance in such hypothetical battle?

If I believe so, I rely not on the art of warfare, of which I know little, but on the literature which in Russia – maybe more than in Poland – is an important source to understand people and their country.

Great chaos

I bring back to mind epic novels describing incredible and hard-to-grasp chaos of the civil war Russia in the years 1917-1921. The chaos comprising of dozens of frontlines, cyclones and anticyclones roaming through steppes, taiga, impassable forests, deserts and borderlands of China and Mongolia. Incited by dozens of self-appointed commanders loosely related to any higher command either in Moscow or in Siberian, Caucasian or Mongolian countries fighting against Bolsheviks. Those numerous formations bound by fear, esprit de corps, battles fought together or commander’s charisma often changed sides – just like that, acting on a spur of a moment, a change of sentiment, a leader’s winged phrase, rocked by sleeplessness, marches, battles. Yuri Zhivago’s unit described in a novel by the Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak is their perfect image.

But there is another novel, much less known though hardly inferior in the scope of historical panorama, structural mastery, insight into human attitudes and changes of heart, “Tolstoyan” battle scenes. I mean of course „General and his army” by Gerogy Vladimov.

Let us remind a fragment: though it is historical fiction, similar situations did happen, only on a smaller scale. In the tragic for Russia summer 1941 eponymous general Kobrisov (sent to the frontline right from prison, where he found himself in result of last purges) retreats from Latvian Yeglava, through Lithuanian and Byelarusian territories, to Moscow, gathering under his command successive defeated units. „Days were glassy-bright, transparent and windless, and the stink of something burnt spread far; it seemed as if the army were advancing through incessant fire surrounding it on all sides. Grass and tree branches were burning, huts, kerosene and steel, electric insulation and rubber. Meat was burning”.

By some strange turn of fate he advances despite being followed by a mass of escaping civilians, cattle, field hospitals and artillery useless for lack of munitions. “Germans, who at the beginning were hot on their heels, soon appeared on the right and on the left, and sometimes in front of them. All day long from a distance a roar of engines, screech of hundreds of caterpillars could be heard. Later they explained to general Kobrisov and showed him on the map that his tiny army got trapped between two millstones: tank armadas of Hoth and Guderian”.

The other frontline

In minds of this human mass – living from hand to mouth, weaving between frontlines through flaming forests eastwards, eastwards, towards Moscow – reflections appear: who is guilty of this horrifying defeat, this suffering. Who brought the country to the verge of downfall, payed no heed to warnings, joined forces with today’s invader. And whether it would be possible to change anything.

General Kobrisov does not let such thoughts to his mind: wounded, unshaven, on a limping horse he leads his people. But they are present in the minds of his companions – and obviously also in the minds of people on the other, Moscow side of the frontline. Because approaching autumn and Mozhaysk Kobrisov’s lookouts reach retreating rear lines of the Red Army’s regular forces… –

„…and reconnaissance troops unexpectedly encountered resistance and were shelled. They brought the news: in trenches one can clearly hear Russian speech. And then slowly, gradually happened what always happens when invaders and defenders speak the same language. Impenetrable defence turned out to be not so impenetrable; some daredevils – named ‘messengers’ or ‘new land explorers’ – payed a few day’s visits there and returned. Also from the other side ‘messengers’ and ‘explorers’ arrived asking hesitantly: ‘But you are not against us, are you?’. And so two forces stood facing each other, for some unknown reason separated and tormented by mutual attraction.

Suddenly it all ended. Last of the guests brought news that overnight the whole foremost line was taken up by NKVD units. And suddenly the line bristled with machine guns, with sniper posts. Where peace paths had been worn now entanglements of barbed wire grew, prickly cylinders crawled through grass and burdocks like vipers. And in places where one could not pass anyway plates warning of minefields appeared. Then a loudspeaker was installed calling to cross on the side of “your own”, calling not to obey provocative orders of commanders.

And finally – let us sum up though this prose is hard to put aside – “a twin-engine assault plane LI-2 appeared in the sky with red stars on its wings and fuselage. … It made a few circles, obviously looking out for something, and then three parachutes separated from it and hovered over the forest. … All three messengers had identical harsh faces with hawkish eyes which pierced and commanded, immediately imposing obedience”.

Tangled roads

Fictional general Kobrisov had no choice: he disbanded his army and ordered his troops to join Moscow defenders. What else could he do? “We will drive you out from here you, beltless, right through the middle of your forces. And I guarantee you, general, that in your whole army there will be not a single man to defend you”.

It is a probable course of events. But among this chaos, unfathomable for any outsider, among entangled frontlines, supply chains, trenches and paths negotiated by messengers speaking the same language and asking hesitantly “But you are not against us, are you?” – I see a shadow of a chance for the Legion and the Corps’ troops – and for Russia.

Just a shadow.

– Wojciech Stanisławski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Hanna Pasierska
Main photo: Sumy district in the Ukraine, May 24, 2023. Russian Volunteer Corps soldiers in the Ukrainian army posing for photographs in a base after a sabotage action on Russian positions in Belgorod. Photo PAP/Mykola Kalyeniak.
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