As hostilities in the east of Ukraine continue, Russian authorities have been cracking down on underground political movements and groups that oppose the official state line regarding the war. Peaceful anti-war and opposition movements have resorted to subversive activity, including sabotage, while pro-Ukraine groups report on such activities to amplify their impact.
Background: Russian Resistance
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, acts of civil disobedience have been ongoing in Russia, including peaceful protest or bringing flowers and candles to monuments and places associated with history of Ukraine. However, Russian authorities have been cracking down on such shows of opposition, even on pro-war patriots who criticize the performance of state and military leadership.
According to human rights group OVD-Info, which focuses on freedoms of speech and gathering, about 20,000 Russians were arrested at anti-war gatherings between February 24, 2022 and July 21, 2023. Criminal and administrative punishment have been increased, while new restrictive bills are being introduced. For instance, the State Duma us deliberating on a bill to designate those charged in such cases to the extremist and terrorist register of the Russian Federal Service for Financial Monitoring, a.k.a. "Rosfinmonitoring," and to block their bank accounts or even revoke their Russian citizenship for "posing a threat to national security." Cases of extra-judicial persecution are also being reported, including dismissal by employers, threats, harassment, and restriction of entrepreneurial activities.
Such measures indeed dissuaded some people from protesting, as evidenced in the significant decrease in the number of administrative cases once harsher punishments were introduced into the Russian Criminal Code. However, some activists went underground, turning to more violent resistance. It seems that as the "price" for peaceful protest, including assemblies, petitions, online comments, and disseminating leaflets has become too high, covert or "partisan" activities became more appealing.
Underground activities include the arson of military enlistment and recruitment offices or other Ministry of Defense property; vandalizing cars or places bearing war symbolism; disruptive activities, targeting, for example, railways. At first, authorities treated such actions as "intentional destruction or damage to property," but since the end of 2022, the majority of such cases are charged as "acts of terror" or "disruption." Moscow claims that many of the offenders acted under the guidance of Ukraine's special services. As of July 2023, there were about 80 cases against "opponents of the war" initiated under article "vandalism," 38 cases under the article "act of terror," and 27 cases of violence directed against a government official.
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Russian Dissident Telegram Channel
A Russian dissident Telegram channel was launched. In its first posts, the channel mentioned the legion "Freedom of Russia," which was fighting on the side of Ukraine, and conscripted from Russians. It also showcased several public activities, including the dissemination of anti-war leaflets in Belgorod, a Russian city near the border with Ukraine, and the torching of government vehicles or other property.
Some such actions were carried out by people unaffiliated with any group, as in the case of a 24-year-old history teacher who torched a military enlistment and recruitment office.
On May 2, 2022, the channel reposted a photo of a riot police vehicle in Moscow that was targeted by a Molotov cocktail. The post was originally by an anti-government channel The case is telling, as it shows the main 'modus operandi,' i.e., usage of "Molotov cocktail," which is easy to manufacture at one's home.
Another wave of arson cases launched upon the announcement of Russia's "partial mobilization" on September 21, 2022 and targeted military recruitment and enlistment offices. In first week of August 2023, probably due to the rumors of new wave of Russian forces mobilization, several cases of arson were registered: in Ulan-Ude, a man threw a Molotov cocktail into a non-operational military enlistment office; attempted arson was prevented in Omsk; on September 2, 2023, in Stavropol, a woman was detained for attempting to set fire to a military enlistment office, allegedly following the instructions of phone scammers; another case happened in Vsevolozhsk, and on August 7, a sailor tried to set fire to a military enlistment office in Primorye. Sources in Russia's Ministry of the Interior say some of these cases were associated with subversive activity headed by Ukrainian services.
The group doesn't take responsibility for actions posted on the channel, but does hint that the group is engaged or at least supports direct action. For instance, the group raises funds "for the struggle" via cryptocurrency.
Partisan groups have claimed responsibility for some sabotage actions. For example, on September 18 the channel posted a video of the torching of Russian Army military equipment, saying the action was carried out by partisan group "Right of Power" (RDPS). According to the post, the group destroyed "KAMAZ" trucks loaded with military cargo, including thermal imaging cameras and body armor.
The channel post with a video of a masked man throwing a bottle with flammable liquid at KAMAZ trucks. The text of the post claims that the "Right of Power" group was previously responsible for the attacks on Russian railway infrastructure.
In another post, from September 26, the group highlighted the vandalization of a "memory alley," which was erected in the city of Vladivostok to honor of Russian servicemen who fell in the war with Ukraine.
Video showing the vandalized "alley" to honor of SVO servicemen. Graffiti reads: "For the children of Ukraine."
Notably, there is some organized partisan activity in Russian territory; Ukrainian "volunteer battalions" are similarly engaged in subversive activity. For instance, on May 16, 2023, the commander of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) Denis Kapustin (a.k.a. Nikitin and "White Rex") claimed that the group's '"comrades" throughout Russia number "tens of thousands," and that they are ready to "give everything for the free future of Russia."
RDK head Denis Kapustin stated in a video:, "Our comrades across the country [Russia] are preparing for active action. They may not be equipped like professionals yet, but they are armed and motivated!"
It's hard to gauge the extent to which such claims are true, whether the organized partisan groups are interconnected, or whether they coordinate such activity at all, considering the high risk of carrying out such operations in Russia. However, videos show partisan activities which were claimed by RDK members in Russia. For example, a post published on October 12, 2022 shows the arson of electrical network infrastructure in the Russian city Ekaterinburg.
Revolutionary Movement Right Of Power (RDPS)
The Revolutionary Movement Right of Power Telegram channel was created in January of 2023. The group holds an anti-war and anti-Putin stance, accusing the Russian government of committing atrocities and military aggression. It is actively recruiting members.
In one post from August 31 the group wrote: "We [...] are engaged and urge everyone to join an active resistance to the regime of the 'Kremlin dwarf' [i.e., President Vladimir Putin]. Fortunately, many people realize that Putin himself, as well as his associates and his army are to blame for the explosions that occur in the cities of Putin's Russia, and not those who are defending against his aggression [i.e., the Ukrainians]. [...] Join us and together we will destroy the regime from within and instead of the sound of explosions, we will soon hear celebratory fanfare as Putin and his accomplices are finally brought to justice for their crimes!"
The group is also responsible for attacks on Russian railway infrastructure. For example, on July 2, 2023, the Telegram channel posted a video of the torching of a truck control relay in Moscow. Damage of the control relay effectively disrupts the movement of trains and logistics.
Video of the torching of the control relay. Caption reads: "Rail war has even come to Moscow."
The "Right of Power" group locates independent activists inside Russia who are ready to carry out activities, and provides them with support, including financial, legal, and informational (as the group itself claims).
Seemingly, the group operates as follows: the independent person or group choose the target, make the plans, and executes the action. A video recording of the action is then cleaned of meta data and sent to the group's email. Upon receipt, payment is transferred to those who carried out the action.
This modus operandi corresponds somewhat to aforementioned statements of the Russian authorities, especially with regards to the last wave of arsons, where the accused claimed they were tricked into committing the crime via fraud. For example, the District Court of Vladivostok placed a minor accused of "training in terrorism" in a pre-trial detention center. According to a press release, the Vladivostok teen acquired the necessary knowledge and skills on the Internet to commit arson at one of the military recruitment offices of Russia's Primorsky Krai area. In documents, the minor was characterized as bearing a "negative attitude" towards the war in Ukraine as well as "dislike and hostility towards the current Russian government."
It is unclear how exactly recruitment was conducted and what motivates those who carry out such actions, or how they are persuaded into committing arson or other anti-war actions (or, for that matter, if any funds are actually being transferred to them).
Leaflet of the group showing a Motolotov cocktail. Text reads: "The Kremlin will fall in 2023; join the "Right to Power." The logo is followed by email and Telegram addresses.