‘We are Russians just like you’: anti-Putin militias enter the spotlight

<span>Photograph: Sergey Kozlov/EPA</span>
Photograph: Sergey Kozlov/EPA

As Russian militias opposing the Kremlin readied a daring cross-border raid into the Belgorod region this week, a man with slicked-down hair, in full camouflage and holding an automatic rifle stared into a camera lens.

“We are Russians just like you,” the man said in the video, later posted online. “We are people just like you. We want our children to grow up in peace and be free people so they can travel, study and were just happy in a free country. But this has no place in modern Putin’s Russia, rotten through and through from corruption, lies, censorship, restrictions on freedoms and repression.”

That man was Maximillian Andronnikov, the self-proclaimed commander of the Freedom of Russia Legion, a paramilitary group that, until this week, was chided for its outsized internet and media activity. Under the nickname “Caesar” he has also served as a media spokesperson for the group, which has sought to largely act in the shadows and keep its membership a secret.

But with the raids into southern Russia this week, the spotlight has been turned on both the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, another group composed of Russians who now say they are fighting against Putin.

Profiles have shown that a number of the Russian guerrillas are veterans of anti-Kremlin groups and many, particularly in the Russian Volunteer Corps, have connections with Russian far-right organisations. In a photo taken last month, Andronnikov stands next to Denis Nikitin, a white nationalist prominent in the MMA fighting scene who heads the Russian Volunteer Corps.

Andronnikov himself was previously a member of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), an ultranationalist group that is publicly opposed to Vladimir Putin but has also fielded pro-Russian fighters in the war since 2014.

Agentstvo, an independent Russian news agency, earlier this year published a 2011 photograph showing Andronnikov at a Russian march with Denis Gariev, the head of RIM’s paramilitary arm. A member of RIM who knows Andronnikov said that he left the group before the war in Ukraine began in 2014.

Andronnikov, who was born in Sochi and later lived in St Petersburg, was also called as a witness in a 2012 case about an alleged military coup being planned by several men in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg. Andronnikov, who was then the head of a St Petersburg “military-patriotic club”, was not charged in the case.

The plot was linked to Vladimir Kvachkov, a retired colonel and hardliner. He was jailed after members of his group, the People’s Front for Liberation of Russia, were accused of training with crossbows in a plot to overthrow the government.

Andronnikov was working as an archery trainer in 2022 when the war began and quickly left for Ukraine, fighting on Kyiv’s side since and saying earlier this year that his ultimate goal was to remove Putin from power. Prior to the raid, he said he had been fighting near the city of Bakhmut.

“I am a good Russian, and on the other side are bad Russians,” he said in another interview earlier this year. “And I kill them every day.”

The militias also include defected members of the Russian security services. Ilya Bogdanov, a former FSB officer, left Russia for Ukraine in 2014 and barely escaped from a Russian secret services kidnapping attempt in 2019. Video published from the raids this week showed Bogdanov hijacking a Russian BTR-82A armoured personnel carrier during the fighting.

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About 10 fighters from the Freedom of Russia Legion and another 30 from the Russian Volunteer Corps fanned out in a field on Wednesday for a press event that also served as a victory lap after the raids, which marked the first sustained fighting on Russian territory since the beginning of the war.

Militia members at their meeting with the media.
Militia members at their meeting with the media. Photograph: Sergey Kozlov/EPA

It was the first display of strength by the two organisations, which appear to have access to US-manufactured armoured vehicles and weapons. The White House said that it was looking into reports that the militias used US-supplied M1224 MaxxPro MRAPs, which Russia has said would be tantamount to increased US involvement in the war.

Ukrainian officials have denied any connection to the militias, while taking obvious satisfaction in Russia facing a similar threat to the unmarked soldiers and proxy groups Moscow employed against Ukraine in Crimea and Donbas in early 2014.

One popular joke has been to call the Belgorod region the “Bilhorod People’s Republic”, a reference to the Ukrainian regions that have been captured by Russia.

“BREAKING: Putin announces another Special Military Operation to defend Russian-speaking Russians from Russians invading Russia from Russia,” went another.