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 more opportunities to operate and increase their influence. This blog is the fifth in a series in which CEP highlights the key actors, analyzes their extremist ideology, their modus operandi, and their transnational role.
Rusich is a Russian far-right, neo-Nazi, extremist paramilitary group founded by Alexey Milchakov in 2014 and has been fighting for the Assad regime in Syria and also alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine ever since. Because the group’s membership does not exceed two dozen individuals, its primary added value for both the separatist forces in Ukraine as well as the Russian government is likely not its military force but its propaganda activities. Information about the atrocities committed by Rusich in Ukraine and Syria is popular among Russian far-right circles, especially on Telegram and VKontakte. Rusich’s ability to operate in several conflict zones outside Russia is symptomatic of the greater tactical and political autonomy enjoyed by Russian far-right extremists as a result of the war in Ukraine, as well as the deliberate decrease in control the Russian state apparatus exercises over these groups. Were this trend to continue, Russian violence-oriented extremist groups could become a much more dangerous force in Russia and abroad.
Milchakov, the founder of Rusich, is a native of St Petersburg and holds extremely radical, far-right, neo-Nazi views. On his VKontakte website between 2011 and 2012, he posted photos and videos of scenes where as a younger man he tortured, killed, and allegedly ate puppies—in addition to posing with a Nazi banner, expressing Nazi ideology and advocating the general, senseless killing of puppies, children, and the homeless. In 2020 Milchakov released a video stating: ‘I'll say it outright: I'm a Nazi.’ He has openly boasted about photographing the bodies of mutilated and burnt Ukrainian fighters from the paramilitary Aidar group in 2014. Milchakov is also reputed to have cut the ears of Ukrainian corpses and scratched the kolovrat, (Slavic swastika), on the faces of the corpses. The round, eight-pronged kolovrat swastika appears on the badges of Rusich fighters and is also on the group’s official emblem, in addition to the reversed Russian imperial flag and other neo-pagan symbols.
Milchakov has compared killing a human to hunting, and in May 2018, he was identified as one of the Wagner mercenaries who participated in the torture and killing of a Syrian man, Hamdi Bouta, with a sledgehammer, explosives, and machine guns. In the early 2000s, Milchakov was a member of the Slavic Union, a neo-Nazi organization founded by Russian nationalist Dmitry Demushkin. As of November 2023, Milchakov is sanctioned by, inter alia, the EU, US, UK, and Canada.
According to some of Milchakov’s statements, he formed Rusich out of a training camp that he set up in 2009. He formally established Rusich sometime in the summer of 2014, together with Yan Petrovsky, AKA Voislav Torden, a Russian-Norwegian far-right nationalist and militant. On his VKontakte page, Milchakov states that he did so after undergoing combat training at the ‘Partizan’ training camp run by the Imperial legion, the paramilitary wing of the Russian Imperial Movement. Before that Milchakov served in the Russian Airborne forces, where, in 2012, he joined the Pskov assault landing division. In 2014 Milchakov claimed that those espousing views similar to the group’s extremist ideology may join Rusich instead of the Azov battalion, arguing that the creation of Novorossiya—a confederation between the Luhanks People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR)—should be a goal shared by both the Ukrainian and Russian far right.
Recruitment for Rusich is done through multiple channels. According to Milchakov, Rusich can be joined by children above the age of 12, although it apparently does not currently count children among its ranks. Rusich also includes a number of foreign fighters, including at least one member of the Polish neo-Nazi group Zadruga. In 2020, Rusich had around two dozen fighters, according to Milchakov. In 2023, Rusich invited former members of the security and military services in Crimea to join the group. A 2019 report by the Norwegian Security Service revealed that Petrovsky allegedly tried to recruit fighters for Rusich in Norway. Recruitment, however, does not appear to be the group’s primary concern. As of 14 October 2023, it has suspended the combat training it offers, claiming that it is currently unable to conduct courses at a level that would meet the strict training requirements of its personnel.
Rusich is active in both Ukraine and Syria. In Syria, multiple members of Rusich fight for the Wagner mercenary group, and their involvement in the country can be tracked on social media. For example, Nikitin Alexander Vladimirovich (AKA “The Livonian”) was killed in Syria on 17 October 2017, and according to online images it is very likely that six members of Rusich were fighting for Wagner in Syria in 2017. The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) has monitored the locations of the group’s activities in Syria. These ranged from Palmyra in south-central Syria to at least Al Kawm in the northern-central part of the country. Rusich co-founder Yan Petrovsky and Rusich fighter Aleksander Voskanyan have also been photographed carrying Scandinavian flags and symbols in Syria, a likely expression of their belief in Aryan supremacism. In an interview, Rusich fighters tried to pass off as Scandinavian volunteers. Still, Rusich has been most active, both militarily and propagandistically, in Ukraine.
Rusich was formed to conduct reconnaissance and sabotage activities inside Ukraine on behalf of the Ukranian separatists and Russian troops. During the first Russian invasion of Ukraine after 2014, Rusich commprised a unit within the ‘Batman’ Rapid Response Group. The ‘Batman’ Rapid Response Group was a separatist militia force of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic. It was headed by separatist Lieutenant Colonel Alexander ‘Batman’ Bednov. Rusich engaged in several battles and assaults in Ukraine, including the battle for the Luhansk Airport. In September 2014, Milchakov, together with the Russian special forces, organized an ambush of a column of the Ukrainian Aidar Battalion near the village of Metalist in Luhansk on 5 September 2014, killing approximately 40 Aidar fighters. Milchakov then posed for photos with the mutilated bodies of Aidar fighters—in one of them, he is holding the cut-off ear belonging of a Ukrainian fighter. These actions put Milchakov on Ukraine’s most wanted list for crimes committed in Donbas. In March 22, 2015, Milchakov participated in the International Russian Conservative Forum, a conference which united Russian, European and American fascist and neo-Nazi groups, including the Russian Imperial Movement. Milchakov expressed his affinity for Hitler in this forum, and according to scholars of Russian far-right extremism, this made him a quasi-celebrity at the conference and news of his attendance was widely published.
Following the battle with the Ukrainian Aidar Battalion, Rusich published a video in which it interrogates Ivan Issyk, a member of the battalion. In this video, Rusich members carve a kolovrat on Issyk’s face. Rusich also doused him with fuel and set him alight. Issyk was interviewed in a hospital by sanctioned British pro-Russian journalist Graham Phillips. Several days after the interview, Issyk was abducted from the hospital and killed. An autopsy revealed that Issyk’s internal organs had been cut out and replaced in his body, including fragments of his brain being put in his stomach, and blue and yellow fabric had been stuffed into his mouth, demonstrating the absolute barbarity of Rusich’s members.
Following Alexander Bednov’s death in 2015, Milchakov announced that Rusich was no longer subordinate to the command structures of the LPR, and that the group would fight against both the Ukrainians and the separatists led by Igor Plotnitsky, former head of the LPR. Milchakov accused Plotnitsky of killing Bednov after the latter’s alleged insubordination. After this, Rusich fought for some time under the LPR Prizrak Brigade led by Alexey Mozgovoy. However, the group was soon persecuted by the LPR Ministry of State Security, and redeployed to the Donetsk People’s Republic at the end of March 2015, becoming part of the Viking battalion of the self-proclaimed Donesk People’s Republic. Around July 2015, Milchakov completely withdrew Rusich from Ukraine for ‘re-training and further recruitment’ in Russia, and because the DPR required Rusich to sign a formal service contract.
Such actions demonstrate the group’s wide-ranging autonomy. Its commander was able to effectively declare war against separatist forces supported by the Russian government, and then return to Russia in complete safety. Additionally, in light of its online criticism of the Russian government’s conduct of the war in Ukraine, it may be argued that Rusich belongs to a group of extremists in the Russian information space who criticize Putin, apparently without retribution. This raises concerns, even among DPR commanders, that Rusich may continue to do so even after the war. As explored in the second part of this series, Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in 2022 afforded Rusich even more opportunities to bolster its autonomy.