Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, much has been said about the purported neo-Nazis that are fighting on behalf of Ukraine. However, little is known about the great number of neo-Nazis that are fighting on behalf of Russia. This may be due to the robust propaganda campaign that Russia has waged to bolster its “denazification” casus belli in the country; or perhaps due to a lack of Western understanding of the progression of right-wing extremism in Russia. Often times, those in the West view the situation in Ukraine through a restrictive and more easily understood lens of “white supremacist extremism”. This is a familiar term that evokes certain preconceived notions about a group or individual’s beliefs. This however is overlooking the great complexity that exists in the Russian neo-Nazi subculture. The “white supremacist extremism” that has pervaded much of the Russian separatist ideology has deep roots in Russian nationalism, imperialism, the supremacy of the Slavic race, Christian Orthodox extremism, along with more common neo-Nazi beliefs of antisemitism and fascism. Though these ideas have permeated the Russian subculture for decades, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, as well as the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, gave rise to many of the neo-Nazi and right-wing extremist organizations currently active in the War in Ukraine.
It is undeniable that Russian imperialism has heavily influenced the separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk, with leaders of the separatist movement openly espousing Russian neo-imperialist and ethno-nationalist rhetoric. This is also demonstrated by the numerous separatist battalions that fly modified versions of the Russian Imperial flag. With the organization and hierarchy of fighting forces solidifying following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many of the small separatist neo-Nazi battalions were incorporated into other larger Russian fighting units. Additionally, evidence suggests that pro-Russian neo-Nazi activities on Ukrainian territory have been coordinated with the Russian secret services, with some of the worst claims of war crimes coming from Kremlin-backed mercenary groups who openly espouse neo-Nazism.
Russian-Aligned Extremist Fighting Forces
The individuals from these far-right extremist movements often recruit and provide personnel for the direct fighting forces on the ground. Their fascist, nationalist, and Russian imperialist ideologies overlap with the explicitly neo-Nazi troops fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine.
Russian National Unity / Russian Orthodox Army
Founded in 1990, the Russian Nationality Union (RNU) is a neo-Nazi party and paramilitary organization which advocates the expulsion of non-Russians from the country. The group has a red and white emblem that closely resembles the Nazi swastika. At the height of its influence, the RNU had roughly 20,000-25,000 active members before dissolving in 2000. Despite this, the RNU has operated under the leadership of Aleksandr Barkashov in the war in Ukraine under a new name.
The Russian Orthodox Army (ROA) was formed in 2014 by former members of the RNU and quickly began fighting Ukrainian forces in the Donbas War. The army’s undisputed commander is Igor Strelkov, who Ukrainian officials have identified as GRU Officer Igor Girkin.1
Though the ROA has claimed to have 4,000 members, eyewitnesses have estimated their membership to closer to 500 people. The group can be identified by their insignia and flag that bears a cross on a shield and sword overlaid on the Russian flag. After operating for a few months independently, in late 2014 the ROA was absorbed into the Oplot Fifth Separate Infantry Brigade.
The ROA has been accused of kidnapping, beating, and threatening Protestants, Catholics, and members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and participating in anti-Semitic acts.
The Russian Imperial Movement
The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) is a neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist organization that seeks to reinstate a Russian autocratic monarchy and establish a mono-ethnic state. The RIM has allegedly recruited and trained white supremacist extremists from across Europe to fight in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya.
The group openly advertises its “Partizan” training course that runs for one to two weeks in Russia and has allegedly trained a number of foreign fighters. The RIM has two known training facilities in St. Petersburg, which have been used for a variety of paramilitary exercises, including woodland and urban assault, tactical weapons handling, and hand-to-hand combat training. Since 2008, its militant branch, the Imperial Legion, has reportedly sent fighters to Ukraine, Syria, and Libya.
In 2020, the U.S. State Department officially designated the RIM as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity and named three of RIM`s leaders as terrorists - Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev; Denis Valliullovich Gariyev; and Nikolay Nikolayevich Trushchalov.
New Russia Party / United Armed Forces of Novorossiya
The New Russia Party, also known as the Union of People's Republics, is a provisional confederation of the DPR and the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) in Eastern Ukraine. The two entities merged into one fighting force in September 2014, forming the United Armed Forces of Novorossiya. The group is labeled a terrorist group by the Ukrainian Government and was accused of downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
The leadership of the confederation has ties to fascism, neo-Nazi ideologies, and imperialist movements. The DPR’s leader Pavel Gubarev had previously been a member of the RNU, editor-in-chief of Russia's extreme-right newspaper Zavtra Alexander Prokhanov, overt Russian fascist and leader of the Eurasian Youth Union Aleksandr Dugin.
The group can be identified by their flag which closely resembles the Confederate flag from the U.S. Civil War.
The Sparta Battalion is a Russian separatist military unit of the DPR with support from the Russian state. Formed in 2014, the unit was led by the Russian-born Arsen Pavlov (callsign “Motorola”) until his death in 2016. The group flies a black, yellow, and white Russian Imperial flag marked by a large red “M” (dedicated to their commander and “DPR hero”, Motorola). Vladimir Zhoga took command of the unit following Pavlov’s death until he was killed in March 2022. Zhoga was posthumously awarded the title of "Hero of the Russian Federation" by Vladimir Putin.
The battalion took part in several major battles since 2014, including the Battle of Illovaisk, the Second Battle of Donetsk Airport, the Battle of Debaltseve, and numerous other skirmishes throughout the conflict.
The Sparta Battalion has been accused of a number of war crimes under Pavlov, with charges including murder, bullying, torture, and forcing people into slave labor.
Task Force “Rusich”
Founded by Aleksei Milchakov, 30, a former Russian paratrooper, and 33-year-old Yan Petrovsky, in 2014 at a Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) event in St. Petersburg, Rusich is self-described as a sabotage and assault reconnaissance contingent of the infamous Kremlin-backed Wagner mercenary group.2 The group gained notoriety for fighting alongside Kremlin-backed separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine and for the brutal tactics used against opposing forces and civilians.
Milchakov has a history of posting extreme and sadistic content to his personal social media accounts, including decapitating a puppy, cutting off the ears of dead soldiers in Ukraine, and carving the kolovrat (Slavic swastika) into the foreheads of Ukrainian soldiers.
Fighters for Rusich were photographed near the Russian-Ukrainian border earlier this month, crossing into the Kharkiv region near the village of Pletenivka in Z-marked vehicles.3 The fighters are identified by their black and white Valknut insignia and flag. The Valknut is an ancient Norse symbol that has been adopted by white supremacists and it consists of three interlocking triangles.
A video has emerged online that shows Senior Lieutenant Roman Vorobyov from the Somalia motorized rifle battalion, receiving the St. George's Cross II award for actions taken in during the Siege of Mariupol. The two patches visible on Vorobyov's right arm are a modified version of the skull-and-crossbones emblem used by Nazi Germany's 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf and a Valknut.4
Slavic Unification and Revival Battalion/Svarozhich Battalion
The Slavic Unification and Revival, or Svarozhich, battalion was formed in 2015 after a number of deputies from the Donbas People’s Republic (DPR) objected to a decree which stated that the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was the official religion of the self-declared state. These deputies, proclaiming the Slavic native faith of Rodnovery, organized the Svarozhich Battalion. This unit has seen action along the frontlines of the Petrovsky region in Donetsk and has fallen under the Vostok Battalion command.5
The Varyag battalion is a neo-Nazi unit commanded by Alexander Matyushin.6 Finding its origins in being far-right paid provocateurs during the Orange Revolution, it has companies parsed throughout a few DPR units, such as the Republican Guard.
The kolovrat swastika has appeared on the badges and insignia of the Ratibor sabotage-reconnaissance units, who have operated within the ‘Batman’ Rapid Response Group.
Other Right-Wing Extremist Organizations in Russia
National Socialist Movement Slavic Union
Movement Against Illegal Immigration
Eurasian Youth Union
The Black Hundreds
National Socialist Society (NSS)
Movement Against Illegal Immigration
People's National Party
National Front Party
Front of National-Revolutionary Action
National Socialist Movement-Russian Division
National Socialist Initiative
National Socialist Revolutionary Movement "Black Sun"