Significant developments are unfolding in Russia. On May 22, an unexpected yet strategic incursion into the Belgorod Oblast was orchestrated by the Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC).
RVC was founded by Denis Kapustin, a reputed neo-Nazi activist now dedicated to overthrowing Putin’s regime. Most media sources chose to focus on the neo-Nazi reputation of Kapustin and some of the other members of the RVC, along with the support given to them by the Ukrainian special forces. They neglected the strategic significance of the incursion and what it demonstrates about the true state of Putin’s regime. For the better part of two days, the two guerrilla contingents roamed the Belgorod countryside with impunity and captured two Russian armoured troop carriers. The two legions followed this feat with another raid into Russia just to underscore that the latter’s borders are a sieve. They took videos in front of post offices in Russia as proof of their presence, boldly stating that “Kilroy was here!” indeed.
Their derring-do further exposed the impotence of the Russian army and the country’s political structures. The raid caused panic among the Kremlin talking heads and sparked disbelief and confusion from the governor of the Belgorod region. His befuddlement was laid bare in his “Believe me, I have no fewer questions for the Ministry of Defence than you do” statement to the press. The absence of any visible resistance to the invaders raised questions about how another RUB10bn designated to shore up border defences was actually spent and for what purpose. It caused the Ministry of Defence to publish a poorly orchestrated and horribly acted video of General Lapin leading a ragtag unit of 15 soldiers “into battle” with shouts of “for the motherland” on an empty street devoid of enemies or people.
There was another unsubstantiated report from Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu’s press office that the Russian army had bombed the FRL and RVC into oblivion with a merciless barrage of analagov-nyet (incomparable) wonder weapons. The FRL and RVC quickly held live press conferences from within Ukraine, proving that they were safe and sound and had not lost a man. The incident caused such a stir that even Alexander Lukashenko tried to downplay the significance of the repeated infiltrations, saying that they were nothing special, anyone could do it, and that it was impossible to maintain an impenetrable border. In the meantime, reports are coming in that the Russian army is pulling significant forces from Donbas and Luhansk to address the looming threat, thus weakening their defensive positions in the East and opening the way for the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The operation also gave more fodder to the founder of the Wagner PMC, Evgeny Prigozhin, for his ongoing feud with the Ministry of Defence in the guise of Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Prigozhin called for their execution on charges of corruption and incompetence and predicted Russia’s defeat in this war. He went so far as to call the Special Military Operation a complete failure, failing to find Nazis while creating a unified nation in total opposition to Russia and, in the process, creating one of the best armies in the world. In other words, he is accusing the Ministry of Defence of total failure in strategic planning and tactical execution of the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin is becoming a serious thorn in the Kremlin’s side, and yet he remains unpunished, unbowed and uncontrolled, further suggesting Putin’s growing impotence in the face of mounting internal divisions.
The foray has also given courage and rise to other opposition partisan groups in and around Belgorod to take up arms in resistance to the regime and its incessant corruption and incompetence. Videos are being posted on Telegram and YouTube of masked, armed men declaring war on the regime and ready and willing to join the FRL and RVC.
FRL and RVC actions are the opening salvos in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, designed to weaken the defences that the Russian army spent the last six months nervously building. It would be wonderful if each and every member of the units were a model of moral virtue, and none would be stained by the patina of neo-Nazism. However, the realities of war dictate different rules, and the scope for moralising is narrower in a conflict that presents such stark contrasts between aggressor and victim, between right and wrong. Yet this appears to be missed by the Western press, which seems infatuated with the clickbait that neo-Nazis, especially when tied to Ukraine, are guaranteed to generate.
Ukraine, the only European country to have elected a Jewish president, has been invaded by a hostile and ruthless neighbour. Its civilian population has been killed by the thousands, and its children stolen and deported into the boundless Russian steppe. Despite these adversities, Ukraine is constantly accused of having a neo-Nazi problem. On the other hand, Russia is one of the most xenophobic societies whose people see enemies lurking everywhere, both at home and abroad. It has readily adopted Nazi-like symbols for its military and armbands that would make the SS proud. Moreover, Russia has weaponised children in distasteful parades where they are dressed in military uniforms. The government has enlisted the Orthodox Church to cynically promote and glorify a death cult. Despite this, Russia is not burdened by the Nazi stereotype.
The hard truth we must confront is the presence of neo-Nazis in militaries and societies across the globe. Despite our wish to believe that we are building more just societies as we progress, the sad truth is that extremism of every hue and ideology persists and, most likely, will persist for as long as humanity walks the earth. In most countries, extremism is relegated to lurking in the shadows, but in others it is on full display in conviction and practice. Ukraine may or may not have a neo-Nazi problem, but one thing is certain: it has a huge Russia problem, one that it needs to address once and for all by all means possible. Despite all odds, not only have it withstood the onslaught, but it is prevailing against an enemy long-considered the second-strongest military in the world. As a result of what Ukraine has done over the last fifteen months Putin’s regime is teetering. Yet the press chooses to give this a pass in favour of a cheap and ultimately uninteresting play on the Nazi narrative. It is disheartening that the fourth estate, in its pursuit of easy clickbait, is failing to discern the bigger picture painted in Belgorod.
Alexander Kabanovsky is formerly Russia-based banker and entrepreneur. This article first appeared on his substack “Thinking Out Loud” here.
“Politics, history, culture, and whatever strikes me as important or interesting. For the time being, highly focused on the war in Ukraine.”