Violence-Oriented Right-Wing Extremist Actors in Russia: Smaller extremist movements in Russia

February 26, 2024
Matus Trubac  —  Research Intern

During the past decade and a half, extremist non-state actors in Russia have become a central element of the violent transnational right-wing extremist milieu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and particularly its re-invasion of the country in 2022 have afforded these actors far greater opportunities to operate and increase their influence than before. This blog is the eleventh in a series in which CEP highlights some of the key actors, and analyzes their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.

In addition to the extremist groups already analyzed by this blog series, there are smaller extremist movements in Russia that mainly operate online. Although they do not currently pose a significant threat to the Kremlin or foreign governments, their decentralized online structures make it difficult to mitigate the risks that they pose. In the context of Russia’s currently implicit tolerance of its domestic right-wing extremist movements, even these smaller groups are well-positioned to disseminate extremist content online, establish links with foreign counterparts, and potentially mobilize into paramilitary forces in the future. This blog entry provides a short summary analysis of such groups that are active in Russia as of February 2024.

The cloud-based instant messaging service Telegram and the social media website VKontakte commonly serve as online spaces for extremist groups that are otherwise not as actively engaged in “real-world” operations as other groups analyzed by CEP. These groups do not just disseminate extremist content, but also raise funds for Russia’s war against Ukraine. Between March 8, 2023 and February 2024, these groups collectively raised $5 million in cryptocurrencies. The blockchain auditing company CertiK identified nine telegram channels connected to Rusich, a neo-Nazi paramilitary group from Russia, in addition to seven affiliated channels crowdfunding for the Russian military and separatist militias. In addition to group channels, individual accounts also attract large online followings and fundraise in multiple cryptocurrencies, often for combat or communications equipment.

Nonetheless, it appears that the main activity of these groups is spreading extremist propaganda. One prominent Telegram channel is the neo-Nazi WotanJugend, which currently has almost twenty-two thousand subscribers. WotanJugend promotes esoteric Nazism and the deification of Hitler, and is openly anti-Kremlin and anti-Putin. The group writes in Russian and has promoted a Russian-language translation of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. While WotanJugend is currently based in Ukraine, as of August 2019, almost 90 percent of the web traffic on its Telegram came from Russia. In January 2019, one of its founders, Alexey Levkin, admitted that the group mainly operates online. The group traces its origins to the hardcore neo-Nazi music scene in early 2000s Moscow. Two of the group’s leaders, Levkin and Ivan Mikheev, have links to both the Azov Battalion and the Russian Volunteer Corps. Additionally, according to Bellingcat, in 2018 Levkin met with members of violent American neo-Nazi gang Rise Above Movement (RAM) in Ukraine. At least one Kremlin official who participated in the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia was also found to have connections to the group. Alexei Petrov—an aide to Maria Lvova-Belova, the head of the Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights of Russia and currently wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for potential war crimes—shared neo-Nazi imagery online, and his Skype and VKontakte online handles referenced the group, in addition to sharing its content.

Another mainly online extremist group from Russia is the Male State. Created by the Russian bodybuilder Vladislav Pozdnyakov in 2016 on VKontakte, it promotes patriarchy, misogyny, racism, and neo-Nazi ideologies. In October 2021, following a Russian court ban that designated the group as extremist, Telegram blocked the group’s main channel. However, Male State subsequently moved to a different channel under the name Men’s Legion, where it amassed fifty thousand subscribers within a short period. According to a Bellingcat investigation, Male State spreads Nazi propaganda on Telegram and other online platforms, in addition to virulently supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine. On February 25, 2022, Shvabra, a Male State Telegram channel with more than ten thousand subscribers claimed that a strike on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky could be seen as a “solution of the Ukrainian question”, an analogue to Nazi Germany’s final solution. Male State also shares content created by Rusich, showing how both paramilitary and online-only extremist groups in Russia are part of the same online ecosystem.

One smaller extremist group with members that appear to have actually fought on Russia’s side in the war in Ukraine is the White Power Ranger Squad (WPRS). While it has a small online presence, its members have reportedly engaged in battles near the village of Oleksandrivka in Southern Ukraine. Photos posted by the group on Russian social media platforms show fighters wearing combat equipment and handling drones or snowmobiles. In contrast to other groups analyzed by CEP, the WPRS might have an eco-fascist element as part of its ideology, given that the group’s logo is a pine tree. Propaganda spread by the group includes photos in which members pose with Nazi SS symbols, the Kolovrat, Totenkopf, as well as insignia from M8L8TH, a heavy metal band where Levkin is a singer.

An online web of extremist groups and individuals continues to spread extremist propaganda and disinformation in Russian on platforms such as Telegram and VKontakte. The Telegram channel the Ghost of Novorossiya, for example, encourages suicidal attacks instead of surrender. Other channels, such as Verum Regnum, share content that is highly critical of the Russian government and its perceived moral bankruptcy. Yet another group, Stay White, promotes the idea of a monoethnic greater Russia. Much of the online content of groups like Stay White or even the WPRS is in the form of internet memes, which may indicate that their activities likely do not extend beyond the digital space. It is likely that even groups like the WPRS are not tactically autonomous but rather consist of members belonging to various Russian mercenary or separatist forces.

It is important to note that identifying extremist movements in Russia is made more difficult by the Kremlin’s current strategy of accusing its enemies and dissenters of extremism. On December 2, 2023, the Russian authorities arrested a Russian singer after he burned his passport. The singer was accused of Nazism and, according to the Russian government, allegedly had links to the neo-Nazi extremist group Atomwaffen Division and a group of extremist individuals in Armenia and Georgia, although no evidence presently exists to corroborate this. With Russia designating Instagram and Facebook as extremist, there is a danger that the Kremlin will continue to normalize the conflation of “extremist” with “anti-state”, in a trend that could enable some of the aforementioned groups.

Alongside the more organized extremist Russian groups such as Rusich or the Russian Imperial Movement, Russia is home to many smaller groups that promote radical and violent ideologies in decentralized online networks on social media platforms such as Telegram or VKontakte. These groups promote their distinct ideologies, share extremist content created by Russian paramilitaries, raise funds for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and provide an anonymous extremist space in which even Kremlin officials participate. They are active in online networks also popularly used by extremists in Europe, which enables cross-border collaboration between them. Amid Russia’s redefinition of extremism, the Russian side of the internet is evolving into a fertile ground for groups that popularize violent extremism, especially if they are pro-Kremlin.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

In Their Own Words:

We reiterate once again that the brigades will directly target US bases across the region in case the US enemy commits a folly and decides to strike our resistance fighters and their camps [in Iraq].

Abu Ali al-Askari, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) Security Official Mar. 2023
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