Who are the Russian brigade members who confront Putin and attacked Belgorod and how they operate

Russian volunteers are trained by Ukrainian troops (REUTERS/Stanislav Yurchenko) (STRINGER/)

More than a year after the invasion of Ukraine, the resistance that Vladimir Putin faces in his expansionist ambition is increasingly forceful. But not only by the Ukrainian forces. Sickened by the atrocities being committed by Russian troops, thousands of Russians decided to break the chains of oppression living in their country and, risking their own lives, banded together to stop Putin from getting away with it in neighboring Ukraine.

This group of unknowns make up the Free Russian Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corpsthe groups that in the last hours claimed responsibility for the attacks against the Russian region of Belgorod -bordering Ukraine-, in which at least two Russian soldiers died and four others were injured.

On Monday, after the first attacks, Moscow accused kyiv of being behind that incursion by a sabotage group. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate immediately came out to deny the accusations, stating that they were two groups of Russian volunteers who oppose the Putin regime. Hours later, the demands of those two insurgent units arrived.

On its website the Free Russian Legion reveals that the group was formed last spring and began fighting in the summer. “because of the desire of the Russians to fight Putin’s armed gang”.

At first they operated as “small combat groups”, but now they actively participate in the hard battles.

“We fight in full cooperation with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and under the leadership of the Ukrainian command”adds the Legion on its official portal.

Like the Russian Volunteer Corps, it is not a formation within the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but a group fighting alongside the Ukrainian Army.

In August 2022, a Volunteer Corps ad posted on Telegram read: “We, Russian volunteers living in Ukraine, decided to take up arms and create a military formation, the Russian Volunteer Corps, in order, together with our Ukrainian comrades, to defend the homeland that gave us shelter and continue the fight against Putin’s criminal regime and his henchmen.”

Last February the newspaper The New York Times published an article in which he gave testimonials from some Legion fighters.

There are several reasons why they decided to take up arms against Putin: some out of a feeling of indignation at the order to invade Ukraine; others for the mere fact of defending the homeland that gave them shelter; and some because of the simple contempt they say they feel for the head of the Kremlin.

However, his adherence to the fight was not easy. At the start of the war, Ukrainian law prevented Russian citizens from enlisting. It was not until August that the Legion was able to legally join the fight.

Russian soldiers themselves recognize, and understand, the distrust that can exist within the Ukrainian forces. In fact, there were several attempts by Russian spies to infiltrate the Legion’s ranks.

Smoke rises in the village of Kozinka, Russia's Belgorod region, in a still image from a video released Monday by the Freedom for Russia Legion group.
Smoke rises in the village of Kozinka, Russia’s Belgorod region, in a still image from a video released Monday by the Freedom for Russia Legion group.

In order to enlist in one of these groups and gain kyiv recognition, fighters must apply and undergo a thorough background check. Once the Ukrainian authorities determine that everything is in order, they can begin basic training.

These groups avoid showing themselves and gaining greater visibility by simply for fear of reprisals from the Kremlin against them and their families.

For this reason, the combatants who spoke months ago with The New York Times they did so using their military aliases. One of them was Ceasewho recognized that he joined the ranks of the Legion in absolute repudiation of the atrocities that Russian troops were committing in Ukraine: “A real Russian does not get involved in such an aggressive war, does not rape children, does not kill women or the elderly. That’s why I have no regrets. I do my job and I have killed many.”

To join the fight, César left his native St. Petersburg with his wife and four children to arrive in Ukraine in the summer. As with so many other fighters, these are not Russian citizens seeking to Westernize the country. Quite the opposite. Caesar declared himself a Russian nationalistwhich in the past belonged to the Russian Imperial Movement, an organization that the United States described as a violent extremist organization.

However, he clarified that, from his vision, Putin’s modern Russia went off the rails. His discontent began to take shape years ago with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. That motivated him to separate from the Imperial Russian Movement, due to his support for the Russian military operation on the peninsula.

Members of the Russian Volunteer Corps pose next to an armored vehicle (Russian Volunteer Corps/Handout via REUTERS)
Members of the Russian Volunteer Corps pose next to an armored vehicle (Russian Volunteer Corps/Handout via REUTERS) (RUSSIAN VOLUNTEER CORPS/)

“I am an example of a Russian man and an example of the men that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky wrote about. That’s the kind of man I am. They do not. They are not Russians, ”he stated.

Another soldier fighting under the code name of Zaza said that, in addition to helping Ukraine achieve the withdrawal of Russian forces, what they seek is “the future deputinization of Russia”. In this line he pronounced Andriy Yusova spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence service, who noted that these Russian legionnaires are joining the war “with an enormous desire to stop Putin’s horde and free Russia from a dictatorship.”

“Being so young, it’s a little early to talk about my political opinions and my worldview, because I’m still forming them (…) But when a bad man has taken over your country, you have to start taking charge,” added Zaza.

This difficult decision also leads many men to confront their own families. As the case of Miami, a 32-year-old fighter whose parents demanded that he join the ranks of the Russian troops: “They are told that bad people live here and they believe it. They don’t think the second largest army in the world can kill people on foot.”

Russian brigade members also fought against their country's troops in the Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia (REUTERS/Stanislav Yurchenko)
Russian brigade members also fought against their country’s troops in the Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia (REUTERS/Stanislav Yurchenko) (STRINGER/)

“They were destroyed”

This Tuesday Russia announced that it ended the operation to neutralize the partisan brigade in Belgorod. The Ministry of Defense claimed to have liquidated all the saboteurs who attacked Belgorod.

“The nationalist armed groups were surrounded and eliminated. More than seventy Ukrainian terrorists have been liquidated,” reported Igor KonashenkovMinistry spokesman.

The Legion stated on its Telegram channel that together with the Volunteer Corps they continue to operate in the Belgorod area and that their objective is to “liberate” the region.

“These are Russian patriots, as we understand it. People who really rebelled against the Putin regime,” said Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar.

In a new example of the power dispute that exists with the Russian military high command, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, attacked Putin’s troops in the last hours for the attacks in Belgorod: “As far as I know, the russian army does nothing to reinforce our borders in the directions from which the Ukrainian army can enter. It (the Ministry) must do it, it is their direct responsibility. They are not the Ministry of Crime, so they cannot commit crimes, but the Ministry of Defense, so they are obliged to defend the country”.

Keep reading:

Russia ended the operation to neutralize a brigade of partisans in Belgorod: “They were destroyed”

Yevgeny Prigozhin again attacked the Russian army after the attack on Belgorod: “The Special Operation became a war”

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