Who are the pro-Ukrainian groups behind the Belgorod border raid?
The Freedom Legion of Russia is the other group that claims to have been involved and also presents itself as Russians fighting for Ukraine and against Putin.
The Legion says on its website that it was formed last spring “by the will of the Russians themselves to fight against Putin’s armed gang in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces”.
The group calls on Russian soldiers and officers to join them in the fight for “Free Russia”.
He claims to be officially recognized by the Ukrainian army and to fight “under the direction of the Ukrainian command”.
The group was banned as a terrorist organization by Russia’s Supreme Court in March.
No specific names of Legion leaders or affiliates are shared on the group’s site. But a man nicknamed “Caesar” has appeared in videos as his de facto spokesperson.
“We are Russians, just like you,” he said in a video Monday before the raid, as he denounced Putin’s corruption and crackdown on civil liberties. “We’re going home,” he said.
The Legion said in March that Russia had initiated criminal proceedings against “Caesar”, without identifying his real name.
The Legion also has a strong presence on Telegram, with over a quarter of a million subscribers, where they call themselves “free citizens of Russia”.
Earlier this month, RVC vowed to fight in tandem with the Legion “despite a different ideological basis”. It’s unclear how many fighters there are in either group.
“The Russian Volunteer Corps seems particularly strongly drawn to Russian nationalists and neo-Nazis, while the Legion seems less politically aligned,” Mark Galeotti, who runs Russia-focused consultancy Mayak Intelligence, told NBC News. .
“They share the desire to see Putin’s regime fall and believe that a Ukrainian victory is the best way to achieve that goal,” Galeotti said.
What is their motivation?
Kapustin, the commander of the RVC, told reporters near the Russian border on Wednesday that his group does not hide the right-wing views of some of its members, but he does not think being called a neo-Nazi is an insult.
“You’ll never find me waving a flag with a swastika, you’ll never find me, I don’t know, raising my hand in a Hitler salute,” he said.
Sporting a goatee and all-black military fatigues, Kapustin touted the success of the Belgorod raid and declared a larger operation was planned.
The group says it fully recognizes Ukraine’s territorial integrity and views Putin’s war in Ukraine as “criminal”. He cites the “overthrow of the ruling regime in Russia” as one of his goals.
Meanwhile, Alexei Baranovsky, the spokesman for the Legion’s political wing, told Reuters the incursion was “the first steps towards the main goal of overthrowing Putin’s regime by armed force”.
In a message on the group’s Telegram channel on Wednesday, the Legion promised to return soon. “Belgorod, Bryansk, Kursk, Voronezh, Rostov, Moscow – wait for us,” the post said.
The group’s manifesto calls Putin’s regime “dictatorial” and says they fight against him and “for the true freedom of every Russian”. He also calls on ethnic Russians and minorities in the country to rise up against the Russian leader.
“It is clear that the Freedom Legion of Russia and the Russian Volunteer Corps are both predominantly Russian groups – self-proclaimed ‘partisans’ trying to bring down the Putin government and they range from rogue neo-Nazis of the football to budding celebrities and even some semi-serious political reformers,” said Michael Clarke, visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London.
“These are not ‘liberals’, but rather die-hard Russian nationalists – but not the Putin variety,” Clarke added.
NBC News asked both groups for comment, but they did not immediately respond.
What is their connection with Ukraine?
The Kremlin does not dispute that some of the fighters involved in this week’s incursion may be of Russian origin, but considers them “Ukrainian militants, coming from Ukraine”, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Ukraine has denied being linked to the actions of either group, calling them “Russian patriots” who decided to rise up against the Kremlin.
The groups’ extreme views and evidence that fighters involved in this week’s raid appeared to be using US armored vehicles has raised questions for Washington, which has sought to ensure equipment sent to Kiev is not used in attacks on Russian soil.
Andriy Yusov, spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, told NBC News that the incursion was carried out “exclusively by citizens of the Russian Federation” who acted “completely autonomously” and that the Ukraine had not coordinated with them.
Baranovsky, of the Legion, said the unit was part of the Ukrainian International Brigade, but denied the incursion was coordinated with Ukrainian authorities.
But Kapustin, the RVC commander, said Ukraine was “encouraging” the group’s actions in Belgorod, and that they were “consulting” about their actions with the Ukrainian military, although he said everything they were doing outside the country’s borders “was our own decision”.
Experts have also questioned kyiv’s narrative that it was a purely Russian affair.
“There is no doubt that Russian volunteer units are armed and controlled by Ukraine,” Galeotti said.
“Although it suits Kyiv to claim that this was simply an enterprise of Russian patriots, it would have been carried out only on the orders of the GUR, or at least with its approval,” he said. he added, referring to the intelligence branch of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.