June 13, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 489

The Myth Of A Russian 'Resistance' Against The Kremlin

June 13, 2023 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 489

Recently, the Russia-Ukraine war was marked by continuous attacks on Russian territory, most remarkably in the Belgorod[1] and Bryansk regions.[2] Since the Ukrainian leadership supposedly promised its Western allies that it would not trespass the Russian border and would limit its actions to the occupied territories only,[3] several transborder incursions were attributed to the Russian battalions, which were first established with the Ukrainian army as early as in 2015.

Although there are quite a lot of ethnic Russians serving in the Ukrainian military forces, those who formally keep their Russian citizenship have been consolidated into two units: One is known as the "Russian Volunteer Corps," which has been active for several years and was incorporated into Ukraine's military in October 2022;[4] the other is the "Freedom of Russia Legion," a much less famous division that was first mentioned in March 2022 but has rarely participated in any action since then.[5] Both units claimed responsibility for the raid into the Belgorod region on May 22, 2023, and publicly an­nounced on June 1, 2023 that they crossed the border once again,[6] being ready for a deeper advance into Russian territory. Many Russian opposition activists and some Western observers began to speculate about the chances of these units getting support from locals living in Russia who may start undermining the current Moscow regime, with most radical activists insisting that all of those who refrain from supporting these incursions into Russian territory should be considered "hidden agents" of the Kremlin.[7]

The Russian Volunteer Corps (Source:

Low Probability Of An Outbreak Of Civil War In Russia

However, while I would argue that Ukrainian assaults on the Russian pro­vinces might become very effective from a strategic point of view, since they had proved that the Russian defense in many portions of the border is virtually non-existent (or is at least porous), and for­ced the Russian command to dispatch significant forces from the frontline for defending quite "peaceful" places, I have a lot of doubts about the capacity of those Russian regiments to penetrate significantly deeper inside Russia's territory (though, during their May 22 operation, the "Freedom of Russia legionnaires" managed to enter 42 km deep into the Belgorod region without direct encounters with local military force),[8] much less ignite a widespread domestic resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime.

Three major factors are forcing me to think this way.

First, it is an obvious point that the Russian regiments are very small compared both to the forces of the Russian regular army and to the overall number of Rus­sian citizens, who fled their country declaring their opposition to the current Russian sta­te. I would say that those leaders who invested their hopes into the Russian "le­gions," like Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian State Duma deputy turned into a Uk­rainian activist,[9] are betting on a new civil war that may start in Russia if Ukraine wins the current showdown. Yet, the civil wars that happened in Russia over the last hundred years were caused by much more profound tensions inside the society than any of the current ones. In 1917-1922, the Russian Civil War arose from the nationwide resistance by the former upper classes deprived of their property and status, and it took three years for its parti­es to finalize the conflict. The second outbreak, which may provide a better analogy to the current times, emerged during World War II as hundreds of thousand Soviet citizens joined the efforts of Nazi Germany to try to destroy the Commu­nist regime.

Historians now assess that there were around 160,000 who joined the "Russian Liberation Army," a collaborationist formation that fought under German command during World War II, headed by General Andrey Vlasov (a Soviet Red Army general and German collaborator, who defected to Nazi Germany) while there were at least ten other regiments formed in the German army compos­ed exclusively of Eastern nationals (including the 29th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS that was often called the "Russian National Liberation Army"), not to say that more than 1,400,000  So­viet citizens offered their services as support staff for the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich, being known as Hilfswillige, or Hiwis. By 1944, there were at least 600,000 of these on active duty in the Wehrmacht while the Hiwis comprised more thatn 25 percent of Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus' 6th Army, which was encircled and defeated at Stalingrad.[10]

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Great Patriotic War evolved for the Russians into a kind of second civil war, but clearly there were signs of this development. The most important fact he­re is that in both cases there were millions, and not hundreds or thousands of people willing to take up arms against the regime that at the time held power in Russia. Contrary to that, during the Russia-Ukraine war, very few people proved ready either to take the side of the Ukrainian forces or to engage in sabotage inside Russia, of which have there have not been more than 100 cases since the start of the war.

The Russian People Believe That Putin Is Their Country's Savior

Second, it is very difficult for ordinary Russian people to take a choice that may lead them to support servicemen breaking into Russian territory, even if the latter are Russians and those approached are critical of Putin's policies. When the German troops occupied vast portions of the Soviet terri­tory in 1941-1942, the mood of the people was completely different from what it seems to be now. By 1941, Soviet society was affected by dozens of factors creating a potential for insurrection. Between 1936 and 1938, more than three million people were executed or jailed during the famous purges and a large part of their relatives thereafter hated the Stalin clique.[11] In 1932-1933, the famine in Ukraine and some Rus­sian regions claimed up to six million lives and it was easy to attribute the situation to Soviet economic policies.[12] In the early 1930s, close to two million pea­sants were expelled to Siberia because they resisted "collectivization,"[13] and there were many who sympathized with them, believing that the Bolsheviks were at war with their own people.

Moreover, large parts of Ukraine and Belarus were annexed from Poland in 1939, and their populations were in great part anti-Soviet. The memory of the Civil War (1917-1922), of the great fa­mines of the 1920s, of the repressions against the church and the faithful – all this also contri­buted to the "resistance" that was so strong in several parts of the country even before the advance of the Armed Forces of Nazi Germany. One example might be the so-called "Lokotsk Republic,"[14] loca­ted in the current Oryol, Kursk and Bryansk regions, that was a self-governing entity of 590,000  people from November 1941 until August 1943 – and there is a stark difference between that and the recent raids, especially as their commanders argued that the goal of the Belgorod operation was to "create a piece of free Russia and keep it as long as possible."[15] These portions of resistance were headed by people that participated in the 1917-1920 revoluti­onary events, some of them were also liberals or even socialists opposing the Bolshevik dictatorship.

However, I would say almost no one in contemporary Russia hates Putin to the degree that could drive people to take arms and to support troops fighting the Russian army in Russian territory – on the contrary, the Russian people believe en masse that Putin is their country's savior whose mistakes, if some were made, should not be corrected by outsiders.

Russian Volunteer Corps Issued A Manifesto Called "The Ethnic Individual"

The third and very important point that should be mentioned is the ideology of the Russians that are now defending the Ukrainian cause. The first Russian battalions appeared inside the "Azov" regiment in the mid-2010s,[16] as the volunteers celebra­ted Ukraine's willingness to be independent from imperial Russia and therefore to promote principles of nationalism. Many observers mentioned for years that the leadership of the Russian Volunteer Corps, which participates in the war on the side of Ukraine, is composed of ultra-radical nationalists, some of whom were arrested in Ukraine in the pre-war years because of their support for the neo-Nazi movement, while the supposed leader of the group, Denis Nikitin, was called one of the most ominous neo-Nazi leaders in Europe.[17]

Few we­eks ago, the Russian Volunteer Corps issued a manifesto called Чело­век эт­нический ("The Ethnic Individual,"[18] in which it proclaims that they fight for a "Russian national state" that would promote a special "ethnic view of the world."[19] I would agree that inside Russia there are many of those who may find themselves sup­porters of such radical views, but they by no means represent the majority of Russian society. Moreover, very few would even distinguish between nationalism and patriotism, and between a call for the creation of a "national" Russian state or for expanding the boundaries of the "Russian world."[20]

Even while these days Rus­sian fighters dream of "liberating" Russia from Putin's power, they were motivated predominantly by Ukrainians' drive toward setting up a unitary nation-state with strong internal unity. They flocked into the Ukrainian military not only (and maybe not so much) be­cause they wanted to change Russia but rather because of their ideological links to Ukrainian nationalists. Here, I would compare them not so much to those Rus­sians who fought against the Soviets during the World War II but to those devoted Soviet Communists who in the 1930s had rushed to Spain to participate in the Spanish Civil War with Brigadas internacionales sup­porting the "revolutionary" Republicans against the "reactionary" Francoists. In this case the number of such volunteers barely approached 1,000 people, which is comparable with the number of Russian legionnaires fighting these days on Uk­raine's side.

Belarus Might Become The Best Target For The Ukrainian Invasion

Summarizing, I would say that the very idea of setting up "national" regiments that would fight on the side of the Ukrainian military was a right and brilliant idea for at least two reasons. First, many ethnic Russian, Byelorussians, and other national minorities living in Ukraine have been ready to defend their country from the Russian invasion. Second, quite a lot of Russians, Chechens, Byelo­russians, Georgians, and other people who were forced to leave their countries found a refuge in Ukraine, and wished to participate in its defense. All these people are highly motivated and feel supported by their compatriots serving in the same battalions. But what seems for me to be the most important thing is that the­se forces may be welcomed in their homelands only if the people there believe they themselves have been humiliated by the Russians.

I could imagine that in Chech­nya, which fought two wars against the Russian authorities, or even in Belarus, where a significant part of the population believes that Russia stood behind the crackdown of 2020 popular protests against the rigged elections and is in general responsible for keeping Belarus inside its "sphere of influence," the emergence of Chechen or Be­larusian fighters may be enthusiastically welcomed. I suggested almost a year and a half ago that Belarus, and not the Belgorod or Kursk regions of Russia, might become the best target for a Ukrainian invasion since the domestic resistance to Lu­kashen­ka's regime might be much stronger than the resistance to Putin's in Russia.[21] But this is not a case for Russia where the people largely do not feel themselves humiliated by the Kremlin lea­dership.


One should not prop up illusions that the war will easily transcend the Russian border with ethnic Russian regiments marching towards Moscow. All these assumptions are largely based on hopes that these Russian volunteers may bring civil war back to the Russian soil. It is not a coincidence that the Russian Volunteer Corps adopted a flag used as a banner of the first anti-Bolshevik troops assembled in the Kuban region in 1917,[22] and their insignia comes from that of a Russian emigrant group, "White Idea," which was created in Paris in 1930s.[23] However, chances for a civil war outbreak remain very small.

To my mind, even if Russia loses its Ukrainian adventu­re and Russian forces are expelled from Ukrainian soil, no nationalists of any kind will prevail in the Russian political elite simply because Russia does not have any experience of a nationalist movement being free of imperial elements. Even while those Russians who now fight in Ukraine against the Kremlin may wish to create a monoethnic Russian state that would coexist with other national units in the territory that today is part of the Russian Federation, this vision of the future will most probable remain marginalized even in post-Putin Russia – and, therefore, the­se people are doomed to stay in Ukraine even after Kyiv's victory.

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor.


[1], May 23, 2023.

[2], March 3, 2023

[3], May 26, 2023.

[4], October 21, 2022.

[5], April 8, 2022.

[6], June 1, 2023.

[7], June 1, 2023.

[8], May 24, 2023.

[9], August 21, 2022.

[10] Thomas, Nigel. "Eastern Troops. Hilfswillige" in: Thomas, Nigel (ed.) Hitler's Russian & Cossack Allies 1941–1945, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, pp. 13–15, 57.



[13], July 9, 2019.

[14] "Though fully within German-occupied territory and the rear area of the 2nd Panzer Army, it was afforded a limited degree of self-autonomy that resulted in the creation of a statelet with its own government departments, armed forces, laws, schools, hospitals, and cultural life. The experiment was regarded by its defenders as a preliminary step toward Russian independence in the post-war European 'New Order', and today many historians argue that an opportunity existed for the Russian people to overthrow the Stalinist regime with German assistance and replace it with a viable alternative. However, such a view discounts the will of the most important figures in the German political leadership — above all, Adolf Hitler — who were determined to promptly initiate eventual National Socialist aspirations of an empire in the East colonized exclusively by Germans and 'kindred' nations." See:

[15], May 22, 2023.

[16], April 6, 2023.

[17], October 4, 2017.

[18], May 29, 2023.

[19], April 6, 2023.

[20], April 6, 2023.

[21], March 22, 2022.

[22], December 23, 2022.


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