On June 1, the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Liberty of Russia Legion (LSR) crossed the Russian border from the territory of Ukraine . They engaged in combat with Russian forces in Shebekino, a town in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast, causing civilians to evacuate. Belgorod Oblast, which borders Ukraine, recently saw extensive fighting as Russian militia groups that claim to fight alongside Ukraine conducted a successful incursion in the oblast’s territory.
This was part of a sequence of operations conducted by Russian anti-Kremlin armed groups in the past weeks. Their stated goals, which have garnered significant attention, are to establish a “demilitarized zone” on the border with Ukraine and to initiate a struggle against the Kremlin’s rule.
Both groups say they want to dismantle Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, and have in the past been described as part of an international legion involved in Ukraine’s territorial defence.
The commander of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Denis (C), known as "White Rex," flanked by fighters in camouflage, attend a presentation for the media in northern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border, on May 24, 2023. (Photo by Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)
In a candid interview with prominent Russian opposition figure Mark Feygin, RDK leader Denis Kapustin (le nom de guerre “White Rex”) claimed that all actions carried out by his unit on Ukrainian soil were coordinated with Ukraine’s military command structure.
This revelation came immediately after the RDK’s inaugural incursion into Russian territory in February, where they briefly ventured into a settlement along the Ukraine-Russia border before retreating.
The movement has been active since the summer of 2022 and is comprised primarily of volunteers who are Russian citizens. Notably, many of RDK’s members are Russian activists who sought refuge after the annexation of Crimea and the start of Russia’s war in Donbas in 2014-2015. RDK positions itself as a successor to these aims as an informal alliance of Russian citizens.
Russian military volunteers naming themselves as the Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps hold a briefing in northern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border, on May 24, 2023. (Getty Images)
While RDK and LSR’s activities are indeed conducted at an unprecedented scale, they are not the only paramilitary organizations that have attracted Russian citizens to challenge Putin’s regime, even before the full-scale invasion.
Chechen volunteer movements
Since 2014, marking the Russian annexation of Crimea, at least two Chechen volunteer movements have emerged – a battalion named in honor of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria’s first president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, assassinated in 1996, and one fighting as part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and named after Sheikh Mansur, a resistance leader against Russian imperialism from the North Caucasus. Members of the Chechen diaspora, as well as the exiled government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, formed at least two other battalions within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Separate Special Purpose Battalion of Ichkeria was created under the leadership of Akhmed Zakayev, the exiled prime minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and a battalion named after Hamzat Gelayev.
Chechen fighters Maga and Thor of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion pose in front of a Ukrainian flag intertwined with the flag of their native Ichkeria in their Kyiv office on Oct. 20, the name given to pro-independence Chechnya crushed by Russian President Vladimir Putin with the help of infamous Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Both servicemen have asked to be called by their nom-de-guerre to avoid retaliation against their family in Chechnya. (Francis Farrell)
What actually happened near Belgorod?
Stop the Wagons
Another notable movement that has emerged since February 2022 is “Stop the Wagons!”
Stop the Wagons (Russian: Останови вагоны, romanized: Ostanovi vagony) is a Russian anti-war movement that engaged in sabotaging Russian railways in various ways to prevent the transport of equipment, fuel, ammunition and other supplies to the war in Ukraine.
Operating within Russia, this group employs non-lethal sabotage tactics that focus specifically on disrupting the transport of Russian equipment, fuel, ammunition, and other supplies to Ukraine through targeted railway diversions.
Russian Ethnic Minorities
Russian ethnic minorities have also been represented in resistance movements. The “Bashort Company” is a group comprised of emigrants and prisoners of war from Bashkortostan. The “Imam Shamil Battalion” was declared by Dagestani emigrants. The “Turan Battalion,” headed by Kyrgyz national Almaz Kudabek, is partially comprised of emigrants of Turkic origin originally from Russia.
A fighter is pictured during a briefing of Russian anti-Kremlin insurgent groups Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps in northern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border, on May 24, 2023
Overall, it can be said that there are sources of serious domestic insurgency in Russia. The diversity of the groups’ ideological platforms, variety, and geography speak for the genuity and independence of these anti-Putin groups.
Ukraine benefits from the weakening of the Kremlin’s control of the country, but it lacks the resources to stand behind acts like setting fire to military offices in the Russian hinterland or constant railway diversions beyond the immediate proximity of the warzone.