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 sixth 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. This blog entry covers its activities after 2015. To read about its history before 2015, please see part one of the series here.
After withdrawing Rusich from Ukraine in July 2015, Alexey Milchakov and Rusich co-founder Yan Petrovsky went to Moscow to offer regular combat training in camps run by E.N.O.T. Corp., a Russian private military company founded by neo-Nazi mercenary Igor Mangushev. In September 2015 and 2016, Milchakov and Petrovsky were enlisted as 'instructors' at a camp associated with the former 'prime minister' of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), Alexander Borodai. Borodai is a right-wing extremist member of the Russian State Duma. This training facility was run by members from both Rusich and E.N.O.T. and attracts a large number of visitors. On September 16, 2017, E.N.O.T. offered a two-day combat training course to around 400 participants mainly from Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Transnistria and South Ossetia. Such combat trainings were also offered to adolescents. At the time, the chief instructor of E.N.O.T. was Roman Telenkevich, who also led the Union of Donbass Volunteers, a group of Russian veterans who fought for Russia in its war against Ukraine. Milchakov and Petrovsky are allegedly members of the Union of Donbass Volunteers, and Milchakov is sanctioned by the U.S. government for his and Rusich’s involvement in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
In 2016, Milchakov was given an award for his military actions in Ukraine from the head of the Republic of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, in the presence of Vladislav Surkov the then assistant to the President of the Russian Federation. Milchakov was allowed a certain degree of freedom by the Russian state to espouse his extremist views. For example, during the award ceremony in 2016, Milchakov used the opportunity to criticize the leadership of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), specifically Igor Plotnitsky, on his VK page, mentioning that Plotnitsky’s ‘Jewish face’ hampered Rusich’s efforts to spread Russian neo-Nazi nationalist propaganda.
In addition to its operations related to Ukraine, Rusich was very active in in Syria as part of the Wagner mercenary group between 2015 and February 2022. By 2017, six Rusich members, including Milchakov, allegedly operated as part of the Wagner forces in Syria. According to the Ukrainian research center Myrotvorets, Milchakov was a sapper/rifleman in the group’s 3rd assault detachment. Finally, in its social media outlets, Rusich posted a photo where one of its members showed the Nazi salute in Palmyra
Among the fighters in Syria was also Petrovsky, also currently sanctioned by the U.S. government, under the code name Norðmaðr, Old Norse for ‘Northman.’ In October 2016, Petrovsky was arrested by the Norweigan police at the house of Ronny Bårdsen, a right-wing activist and member of the Nordic Resistance Movement living in Tønesberg. Following his arrest, Petrovsky was deported from the country. At the time of his arrest, Petrovsky was allegedly in charge of the Zimargl operational and reconnaissance subunit in Rusich, and would eventually replace Milchakov as commander of the group after the latter was wounded in battles for Kharkiv in 2022. This was likely a temporary arrangement.
The group returned to Ukraine in early April 2022 following Russia’s re-invasion of the country in February of that year. Rusich’s return was officially announced by Petrovsky at the St. Petersburg funeral of war veteran Alexei Pozharov, who had been fighting for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). Rusich's combatants were relocated to the Kharkiv Oblast of Ukraine, and photographs showed them in the vicinity of the village of Pletenivka. At least one Rusich member, Alexei Pozharov (AKA Kamen, or Stone), was killed in May 2022. In the same year, Milchakov and Petrovsky were sanctioned by the US for their ‘special cruelty’ in the battles in the Kharkiv Oblast.
Rusich has purposefully built a reputation for particularly cruel acts, and for actions that likely amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The group regularly documents its criminal behavior on its social media outlets—mainly Telegram since 2022. In April 2023, Rusich shared a video on its Telegram channel depicting the beheading of a captured Ukrainian soldier with a knife, although it is not currently clear if the perpetrators shown in the video were themselves members of Rusich. The accompanying caption stated an intention for more such incidents. Rasskazov Yevgeny Eduardovich, a former correspondent for the Russian media outlet Tsarskoye Television and one of the Rusich members who runs its Telegram account, publicly wished Hitler a happy birthday and admitted to experiencing sexual excitement from killing Ukrainian soldiers.
Despite the group’s extremely violent ideology, it is well-funded for its size. While it is unclear where exactly Rusich gets all of its funding, there are several channels it has been known to pursue. On its Telegram accounts, it regularly posts calls for donations. Between March and September 2022, it received around $138,000 to 11 cryptocurrency addresses. In addition to donations, Rusich has also been known to hack online foundations and spread malware to steal cryptocurrencies.
It is possible that some Rusich members are actually on the payroll of the Russian Defense Ministry. According to documents left behind by the G.R.U. Battalion ‘Wolves’ in Kharkiv which were subsequently recovered by the Ukrainian military in October 2023, Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate has been in charge of an illicit military recruitment scheme. A joint investigation conducted by the Ukraine-based Skhemy project and the Russian media Sistema revealed a scheme in which the Russian PMC Redut was used as a recruitment umbrella organization by the Russian government for more than 20 Russian armed formations, including Rusich, until at least 2022. These diverse formations are connected to a single recruitment nexus managed by Redut, where a fighter signs a contract with one of many fictitious companies and is subsequently assigned to either a unit directly in the Russian military or another mercenary company, making it possible for him to be remunerated by the Russian Defense Ministry. Members of several PMCs, including Wagner and Rusich, were partially recruited by signing contracts with various entities that are not legally registered in Russia or anywhere else, and rarely have ‘Redut’ in their name. Through their connections to Redut, these Rusich fighters were not part of an independent corporate network but hired by the Russian government.
It is not clear whether Rusich still participates in the scheme, especially after it announced that it suspended fighting until its leader is released in August 2023. In August 2023, Petrovsky was apprehended in Helsinki, Finland, and Ukraine sought his extradition. In a surprising move which demonstrated how much freedom the Russian state affords Rusich, the group presented an ultimatum addressed directly to Vladimir Putin expressing their refusal to continue fighting until Petrovsky's release was secured. This ultimatum also criticized the Russian government’s inability to protect its citizens. At that time, Rusich had been actively engaged at the Robotyne-Verbove line against the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive, and it is likely that their absence contributed to increased tactical setbacks for Russia in the region.
Despite these events, according to Milchakov himself, his group does not even try to get involved in polite politics, no matter how offensive it may be for decisions ‘from above’. This demonstrates not only the self-confidence of Rusich but also the willingness of the Kremlin to afford supportive right-wing extremist groups a surprising level of political space. For example, throughout 2023, Rusich frequently used its Telegram page to complain about equipment shortages in the Russian military, going as far as to argue that much of its technology is inferior to Ukraine’s, including the Tornado-S multiple-launch rocket system as well as communications equipment. Rusich also publicly criticized that the separatist forces and the Russian army do not evacuate their dead or wounded personnel.
As of November 2023, it appears that Rusich is still enjoying a degree of political and tactical independence from the Russian government. Given the group’s relatively small size, this is unlikely to be of strategic significance to either side in the war in Ukraine. However, it is symptomatic of a broader development. The tolerance that the Russian government affords violence-oriented extremist actors as long as they are ‘anti-Ukraine’ is unprecedented. This will likely have unintended consequences, such as the proliferation of extremist right-wing ideologies within Russia and its neighboring countries. The Russian political climate is currently a fertile environment which has enabled a renaissance of right-wing extremist networks and groups. According to Foreign Policy, Rusich belongs to a new domestic opposition to Putin, and might be seen as an informal member of a loose coalition of right-wing ideologues and militant extremists whose criticism of the Russian government is increasingly more vocal. This also presents challenges that go beyond the domestic stability of Russia. As these networks, movements, and groups gain ideological ground in Russia, the likelihood that they increase their importance and role in the overall transnational right-wing extremist milieu increases, and the risk that they spread their violent influence into Europe and beyond is growing.