A cross-border incursion into the Russian region of Belgorod on Monday put the Free Russia Legion under the spotlight, prompting questions about this mysterious paramilitary unit of anti-Putin Russians.
Russians fighting for Ukraine crossed the border north of Kharkiv into Russia’s Belgorod region on Monday night, prompting accusations from Moscow and denials from Kyiv. A paramilitary group called the Free Russia Legion (and another known as the Russian Volunteer Corps) later claimed responsibility for the incursion, prompting a new round of questions about the group: Who are they and what kind of weaponry do they have?
Russian authorities on Tuesday said they had eliminated the group of “saboteurs” responsible and injured several in the Grayvoron district 80 km north of Belgorod city, although the Free Russia Legion’s political representative told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday the group “didn’t lose a single soldier”.
>> Read more: Pro-Kyiv Russian group says it ‘didn’t lose a single soldier’ in cross-border raids on Belgorod
Significantly, Moscow did not refer to the unit directly. Admitting that Russian fighters had turned against the national army and were launching attacks on Russian territory would be “really bad for Putin and Russian propaganda”, said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in Russian and Ukrainian security at the University of Glasgow.
Such an admission could even pose a threat to those in the Kremlin. “It is their strongest possible way to make a point, to try to show to Russian audience they exist as an opposing force to Putin’s regime,” said Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation and a specialist in the Russian military.
A mysterious unit
The Free Russia Legion was established in March 2022 after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for volunteers days after the Russian invasion the previous month.
“It’s just the same as all the other fighters in the international legion. They just happen to be Russian,” Grant said.
The unit has always been shrouded in mystery, but individual members are far less enigmatic. “In Ukraine they are quite well-known because a lot of them have been interviewed by Ukrainian media or Russian opposition outlets,” Aliyev pointed out.
“Some of them, especially in the beginning, were former PoWs who were given the choice to join this Legion. I don’t think most of them have a professional army background, but they have received decent training, and have combat experience because they fought in Donbas region and around Bakhmut,” Aliyev said.
A former vice-president of Gazprombank, Igor Volobuev, announced in April 2022 that he was going to join, giving the Free Russia Legion one of its most famous recruits.
The Legion makes much of its dual identity, sporting uniforms that display both the white, blue and white stripes of the Russian opposition and the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag.
Its fighters have also adopted a capital letter “L” – for “Legion” and “Liberty” – apparently in response to the “Z” that adorns Russian army tanks and uniforms.
Founded with just 100 fighters, it is difficult to know how large the Free Russia Legion is today or where it has been active. But some analysts believe it has grown significantly since its inception.
“It could be up to two batallions, meaning around 2,000 men,” said Stephen Hall, a Russia expert at Bath University.
Most members have been vague about numbers when speaking to the media, citing hundreds of fighters with support in most of Russia’s major cities.
Good propaganda for Ukraine?
It is unclear whether the Legion shares a common ideology.
“In terms of ideology, it is confusing. They are nothing like the [Russian] Volunteer corps, a well known far-right, proto-Nazi militia, who they seem to have fight alongside during the Belgorod raid,” Hall said.
“They are driven by a broad anti-Putin ideology. It seems like they want more democracy, but maybe not in the purely Western sense of it. And let’s be honest, some of them have probably joined for the better pay,” Aliyev added.
Where the unit has deployed also remains unknown. They appear to have fought in eastern Ukraine as well as in Bakhmut. But according to Aliyev it is unclear how long they stayed in Bakhmut or where they were stationed in the Donbas.
The group’s obscurity has prompted doubts as to whether it exists at all: It’s a common view in Russia, which is convenient for the Putin regime.
“It’s very important for […] Ukrainian propaganda,” Hall said. “Their mere existence shows that Russian are fighting directly Putin and it sends the message that the regime must be aware and fear possible action from inside the country. That’s why there are people saying it could be a PR op for Ukraine. It’s too perfect.
“One possibility is that the Legion does have some Russian fighters, mostly already leaving in Ukraine before the war, and the Legion was built around them,” Hall continued.
But most experts FRANCE 24 spoke to believe they really are Russian fighters. A phantom legion of Russian soldiers makes little sense, Aliyev said, given their active presence on social media and the fact that Ukraine “has heavily invested in this Legion, providing training and armoured vehicles. They really wanted them to be operational alongside the Ukrainian army.”
“I think they didn’t really know until now how to use this Legion. For exemple, they clearly didn’t want to send them for too long [to] Bakhmut and risk losing them. So that’s why there was little information about what was going on with them,” Aliyev continued. The Free Russia Legion was too valuable a propaganda instrument to be sent into the hell of Bakhmut, and too difficult to integrate into the chain of command for complex manoeuvres in the Donbas.
The unit has a “certain degree of autonomy, and it would very well be possible that they acted on their own. But nonetheless, some sort of non-official approval from Ukrainian army official has probably be given”, said Sim Tack, an analyst at Force Analysis, a US-based conflict monitoring firm.
Working separately from – but in coordination with – the regular Ukrainian army makes the Legion ideal for raids into enemy territory.
“What this legion offers to Kyiv is plausible deniability when it comes to talking to western countries about what happened in Russian territory,” Hall said.
This would cross a red line with the United States and Ukraine’s other NATO allies, which do not want Ukraine to escalate the conflict by attacking Russian territory – and especially not while using Western weapons.
Nevertheless, incursions into Russian territory make sense as a military strategy.
“One outcome might be that Russia will feel obliged to move some troops to the northern part of the border in order to secure it, which could help a counter offensive if it happened in the south,” Tack said.
It also highlights that Russia has “poorly guarded” territory near the border, Grant added.
All of this makes the paramilitary units a dangerous complication for the Kremlin. And if Moscow is unable to acknowledge that pro-Ukrainian Russian fighters took the army by surprise, the Kremlin will need to find other culprits to blame.
This article was translated from the original in French.