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 ninth in a series in which CEP highlights some of the key actors and analyzes their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.
This blog entry provides a summary analysis of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), with a special focus on its activities after Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. CEP has also produced a comprehensive report on RIM and its activities up until June 15, 2022, available here, and this blog entry serves both as a summary as well as an update to the comprehensive report.
RIM is a Russian right-wing extremist, fascist group which aims to restore the Russian monarchy, establish Orthodox Christianity as Russia’s sole religion, and make Russians the ruling ethnicity in Russia. Despite lacking official endorsement from the Kremlin, RIM recruits and trains individuals who participate in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. The group is also notably associated with members and sympathizers involved in violent activities abroad, and its militant arm, known as the Russian Imperial Legion (RIL), is reported to have dispatched fighters to regions such as Ukraine, Syria, and Libya. RIM is sanctioned by, inter alia, the US, the EU, Canada, and Australia.
RIM was reportedly established sometime between 2001-2002 by a Russian ultra-nationalist, Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev, in St Petersburg. Vorobyov had been an executive director at RIM’s predecessor group, the All-Russian Party of the Monarchist Center. According to RIM’s website, members of the All-Russian party supposedly participated in the defense of the Russian White House during the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis.
RIM’s ideology is outlined in its online manifesto. The group is right-wing extremist, Orthodox Christian, and ultra-racist. It aims to restore the Russian tsardom, with the ruling dynasty to be decided on by a re-established Tsarist parliament, the Zemsky Sobor. It wants to make Russian Orthodox Christianity the sole religion in Russia, and to turn Russia into an ethno-state ruled by ethnic Russians, whom it views as God’s chosen people. Central to RIM’s ideology is its anti-communism, in contrast to the more lenient or even favorable views of communism and the USSR held by other groups in this series, such as the Other Russia of E.V. Limonov or the Night Wolves. In its manifesto RIM characterizes the era of the USSR's existence as a new "Time of Troubles" (Смутное время), drawing parallels to a historical period of political crisis in Russia after the collapse of the Rurik dynasty in 1598. RIM accuses the USSR of hindering Russia's potential to emerge as a powerful imperial nation by dividing Russia into constituent republics.
Central to RIM’s ideology is the total conquest of Ukraine and the elimination of any distinct Ukrainian cultural identity. On the day of Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine, Denis Valiullovich Gariyev, RIL’s paramilitary leader, called Ukraine a separatist entity and professed RIL’s support for its “liquidation.” In a recruitment video posted on RIM’s VKontakte page, Gariyev also stated that Russia must win the war against Ukraine to preserve the functioning of the Russian Orthodox Church there. According to Vorobyev, RIM is planning to launch a final crusade against non-Christians and a perceived global elite.
According to a post on its Telegram page, to be eligible to join the RIL, a potential member has to be an Orthodox Christian, a monarchist, in good physical shape, without any drug or alcohol addictions, complete a five-day general training course and a separate seven-day training camp, and pass a psychological test.
Training is conducted at RIM’s weeklong paramilitary training program called Partizan (meaning “a partisan” or “a guerrilla fighter”), established in St Petersburg in June 2014. Vorobyev claims that RIM is interested in recruiting people from the whole world, including Australia and New Zealand, to create an international network of like-minded fighters. Based on its Telegram page, Partizan offers a wide range of combat training, including close-quarters combat using Kalashnikovs and fighting in winter weather. Training is provided by members of its paramilitary wing RIL. According to RIM’s website, RIL started its activities in May 2014 in what it refers to as Novorossiya, a Russian imperialist term referring to present-day Crimea and Donbas. Partizan fighter training is led by Gariyev, who claims that RIM trained around 300 fighters for combat in Ukraine between 2014 and 2017.
In early April 2023, RIL posted a photo that captured former Russian Spetsnaz Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, affiliated with Igor Girkin, delivering a lecture and providing military-tactical guidance to RIL trainees at the Partizan training camp in early April 2023. According to a post on RIM’s VKontakte page, RIL members also train soldiers at military centers operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The same post also boasts of RIL members winning second place in a shooting competition held in Russia in May 2023.
Since its creation, RIM has maintained strong links with extremist groups outside of Russia, including in Europe and the United States. Its Partizan training program has been attended by members of the Nordic Resistance Movement and also German right-wing extremist political parties, the National Democratic Party (renamed in 2023 “Heimat”, Homeland) and the Third Path. RIM has also provided training to fighters from Slovakia and Finland. RIM delegates also visited the US in 2017 to meet with Matthew Heimbach, founder of the US-based right-wing extremist neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party.
On January 26, 2020, the Swedish police arrested Anatoly Udodov, a Russian far-right extremist, at Arlanda Airport with a cache of weapons. Udodov had been a suspected liaison between RIM and neo-Nazi extremists in Sweden, and a known associate of Vorobyev and also Viktor Melin, who underwent training in the Partizan camp and subsequently helped carry out a string of bomb attacks on asylum centers in Sweden in January 2017.
On April 29, 2020, the Spanish Interior Ministry warned that RIM was encouraging its contacts in Spain to engage in acts of terrorism, including attacks on infrastructure, and the use of chemical weapons against the population. In November 2022, RIM is suspected of having orchestrated a series of incidents where several Spanish officials, including the prime minister, as well as Ukrainian and US embassies in Spain, received packages with pyrotechnic material. RIM allegedly acted on instructions from GRU agents, although this was not officially confirmed.
Like other extremist groups in this series, RIM is also critical of the Russian government. Vorobyov has accused the Russian presidential elections of being rigged and influenced by corruption. Vorobyov also appears to be a propagator of the emerging “stab-in-the-back” myth in Russia and has attributed Russia’s failure to annex eastern Ukraine to treachery in the Kremlin.
RIM is also critical of Putin’s associates and allies. On January 9, 2024, the group severely criticized Chechen strongman Kadyrov on their Telegram channel for offering to free Ukrainian prisoners in exchange for lifting sanctions on his family. On June 23, 2023, RIL criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense and accused it of creating a “hell of incompetence, greed, stupidity and betrayal” and of neglecting the lives of Russian soldiers, prisoners, and volunteers. During the failed March by former head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin to Moscow in 2023, RIL assumed a neutral stance in the conflict, symbolically siding with the Russian military. On July 21, 2023, RIL made a post on its Telegram thanking Russian right-wing extremist and head of the Angry Patriots Club Igor Girkin for leading RIL troops into Ukraine in 2014, and proclaiming Girkin as the “brightest and only representative of our Russian, White, Orthodox idea.”
RIM has various sources of funding. In an interview on January 30, 2015, Vorobyev claimed that RIM is funded entirely through donations. Alexander Grigorevich Zhuchkovsky, a RIM member, has been known to use his VKontakte page to fundraise for the group. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Zhuchkovsky stated that he raised more than €630 000 in 2014. Zhuchkovsky has also solicited donations in cryptocurrency via the pro-separatist website Project Terricon. Both RIM and RIL list Sberbank account numbers on their Telegram pages for donations, and buy combat equipment from websites such as Combat Center. Some funds are also obtained through the Partizan training courses: Vorobyev stated in a 2021 interview with Scripps News that weeklong training costs $500.
According to Ukrainian intelligence, RIL fighters participated in the incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014 under the command of Igor Girkin. Girkin would later congratulate RIM for being designated as a terrorist organization by the US in 2020. It is estimated that at least six RIM members died during combat in Ukraine in 2014. During this time, RIL members engaged in battles near the cities of Sloviansk, Donetsk, Debaltseve, and Nikishino.
Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, RIM and RIL have extended their operations and increased their influence within Ukraine. According to RIL fighter Vladislav Efremov, RIL has engaged in fighting near the town of Vuhledar in Donetsk oblast. A Telegram account belonging to the Partizan training camp posted videos and photos allegedly depicting RIL fighters on the frontlines near Bakhmut on April 23, 2023. Various other media released by Partizan, RIL and RIM depict fighters with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank guided missiles, multiple rocket launch systems and sniper rifles, allegedly in Ukraine. Given this information it is likely that RIL participated in various offensive and defensive engagements in Donetsk and Luhansk, including the battle for Bakhmut.
As a result of renewed hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, RIM has gained new combat experience and has been able to expand its influence in the region. While the group supports Russia’s war effort, it has intensified its online criticism of the Russian establishment and accuses it of corruption and inefficiency. With war-trained fighters and international reach, RIM could become a powerful Wagner replacement for the Kremlin. Alternatively, if Russia concedes territory to Ukraine, it could present a security threat to Putin’s rule. In either scenario, RIM is better positioned to coordinate with its counterparts in Europe and the United States, and is more likely than ever to become a strong enabler of right-wing extremist terrorism in the West.