Russia’s Nationalist Fringe Takes Center Stage In Eastern Ukraine

By Tom Balmforth
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
June 17, 2014

KYIV — Not long ago, Aleksandr Borodai was a little-known political consultant with nationalist leanings.

Back in 1993, he was among those defending hard-liners barricaded inside the Russian White House in their showdown with President Boris Yeltsin. He wrote regularly for the ultranationalist newspaper “Zavtra” and in 2011 co-founded the "patriotic" online television channel Den-TV.

Despite being a Muscovite and a Russian citizen, Borodai last month was named the de facto prime minister of the self-styled "Donetsk People’s Republic," a separatist region in eastern Ukraine. The move transformed him from an obscure nationalist on the fringe of Russian political life to a key figure at ground zero of the biggest standoff between Moscow and the West in decades.

And Borodai isn’t the only one making the transformation.

“Yesterday’s marginals are today’s political mainstream,” said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a Kyiv-based political commentator and television anchor who is originally from Russia.

Kiselyov, who hosted the popular current affairs program "Itogi" (Summing Up) on Russia’s NTV channel in the 1990s before falling out with the Kremlin and emigrating, added that the ideas of once-marginal figures like Borodai and Aleksandr Prokhanov, the editor and founder of "Zavtra," now make up "the backbone of Russian foreign policy.”

Take Pavel Gubarev, for example. Shortly after he burst onto the scene as the self-proclaimed “people’s governor” of Donetsk in March, 12-year-old photos appeared online of him posing — in full uniform — with members of the paramilitary group Russian National Unity.

Writing on Facebook on June 6, Gubarev, a Ukrainian citizen, admitted he was a member of the group, whose symbol bears a striking resemblance to a swastika, thanking it for “military training that you don’t get in the Ukrainian army.”

Pro-Russian separatist leaders Denis Pushilin (left) and Aleksandr Borodai in Donetsk, Ukraine, in late May

Russian National Unity is infamous for its attacks on ethnic minorities in Russia and two of its purported former members have been jailed in connection with the 2009 killings of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. The group was founded by Aleksandr Barkashov, a Russian nationalist who gained notoriety for leading paramilitary units during the October 1993 Constitutional Crisis in Russia.

Back on May 7, just days before the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held unrecognized independence referendums, Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, released what it says was an intercepted phone conversation in which a man they identified as Barkashov explains to separatist leaders how to falsify the results.

Moreover, Aleksandr Dugin, who in the 1990s preached a Russian nationalism "borderless and red," spoke in a Skype conversation posted on YouTube with Guberev’s wife, Yekaterina, in late March. The two spoke at length about the situation in the east, a week before gunmen seized government buildings.

The ‘Zavtra’ Connection

Several of the Russian nationalists participating in the unrest in Ukraine have links to Prokhanov’s newspaper, "Zavtra."

Both Borodai and Igor Girkin, the self-proclaimed "defense minister" of the Donetsk People’s Republic who goes by the moniker “Strelkov,” have been regular contributors.

Among those contributors are Sergei Aksyonov, the Moscow-installed prime minister in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Another is Aleksei Khudyakov, the former head of the Russian anti-immigration group Shield Of
Moscow. Last year, masked youths from the group raided migrant living quarters in the Russian capital:


Khudyakov was arrested and then released after a storm on the occupied Donetsk regional administration building in March.

"Zavtra" claims it served as a “recruitment point” for Russian volunteers fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatists in Moldova’s Transdniester region in the 1992 conflict.

Analysts suggest that rather than taking the lead in the separatist movement, nationalist groups are instead being recruited and sent by others. 
“These links don’t mean that nationalist organizations are playing a significant role,” said Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which monitors xenophobic attacks and right-wing groups. 

“I have the impression that other people are doing the recruiting of volunteers other than the usual suspects in nationalist organizations.” 

Moreover, extremist volunteers have not always received a warm welcome from separatists in Ukraine.

Andrei Morozov, who goes by the pseudonym “Murz” and heads the little-known group Red Blitzkrieg, traveled to eastern Ukraine’s Slaviansk to enlist his services last month.
But as Morozov wrote on his blog, separatists mistook him for a spy. They handcuffed him, tortured him, and held him for days before dumping him on Russian territory.
Morozov writes that he was then detained by Russia border guards and made to pay a fine of 2,000 rubles (approximately $60) for illegally crossing a border.

Nevertheless, the Ukraine crisis has served to bridge the gap between the Kremlin and many of its nationalist critics.

For years, Eduard Limonov has been an arrest-on-sight target for police during street rallies and his "Strategy 31" freedom-of-assembly rallies have long been banned.

But on May 31, the authorities allowed Limonov to hold his demonstration. He returned the favor by giving a speech parroting the Kremlin line that the United States, the European Union, and the authorities in Kyiv were waging war on the Ukrainian people.

On June 10, Limonov’s Other Russia organization called on its volunteers to travel to the eastern Ukrainian separatist stronghold of Slovyansk.


The Involvement of Russian Ultra-Nationalists in the Donbas Conflict
Richard Arnold
Eurasia Daily Monitor
June 11, 2014 – Volume: 11 Issue: 105

Several cities in Donbas, the eastern portion of Ukraine comprising the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, have been embroiled in Russian-sponsored secessionist violence against Ukrainian authorities since early April 2014. And while Russia has no officially identified uniformed troops in the region, there are claims that it has been involved in the fighting through the deployment of irregulars, like the Chechen Vostok battalion (see EDM, May 30). Other irregular forces have also been involved, such as hardline Russian nationalists. Now it appears there are connections to the most extreme nationalists, Russia’s neo-Nazi movement. Posting on Facebook, Alexander Belov, the leader of the banned Movement Against Illegal Immigration (known by its Russian acronym DPNI), announced the death in Donetsk of Sergei Vorotsev. Vorotsev was a former organizer for the DPNI in the Moscow Region town of Korolev (Official Facebook page of DPNI, June 4). According to the same posting, Vorotsev was killed in the battle for the Donetsk airport.

The presence of a former member of the DPNI in eastern Ukraine is not entirely surprising, but it does suggest a merging of the goals of such movements and of the Russian regime. Similarly, other neo-Nazi groups have also tried to become involved in the Ukrainian crisis, with the group “Sputnik and Pogrom” organizing humanitarian aid for those ethnic Russians affected by the fighting in the region. A banner bearing the slogan “Donbas says thank you” was posted on their site to thank all those who had donated financial aid ( On another neo-Nazi website (officially banned in Russia but purportedly hosted on servers in the United States to prevent closure by the Kremlin), that of the skinhead gang “Slavyansky Soyuz” (Slavic Union), there is a call for Russia to start arming the separatists or even to provide more substantial aid due to the disproportionate array of forces deployed against them by the government in Kyiv ( Finally, an individual from the “Russkiye” ethno-political movement, which grew out of the 2011 protests against United Russia and the reelection of President Vladimir Putin (and whose membership overlaps with many other neo-Nazi gangs), expressed condolences on May 18 to the families of those killed in the fighting in Donbas, saying that “we must prepare ourselves for new victims” (

It also seems that the extreme nationalists have renounced their position in the Russian political opposition movement. Illustratively, the calls by some nationalists for a “new Manezh” (street protest) against Putin on May 18 were dismissed by most Far Right leaders as a provocation ( This evidence strongly suggests, therefore, the Kremlin has now co-opted the neo-Nazi movement.

Nevertheless, the Russian Far Right’s involvement in Donbas has consequences for the unity of other irregular forces who are supporting the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Specifically, not all the Russian neo-Nazis were happy with the prospect of working with other elements—especially the Chechens—in the fight for eastern Ukraine. On DPNI leader Belov’s Facebook page, for instance, there were comments, presumably from other neo-Nazis, deriding the involvement of the Chechens. Indeed, Belov himself posted commentary on the DPNI website complaining that Chechens were in Donbas “with [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov’s blessing and for money” and not out of reasons of patriotism or ethnic belonging ( This was despite the denials from Chechen president and Kremlin appointee Kadyrov that he had directed any Chechens to go to Donbas. Ethnic-Russian nationalists question the commitment of the Chechens and other North Caucasians to the cause of “Novorossiya” (“New Russia,” a vision declared by Vladimir Putin on April 17 calling for bringing southeastern Ukraine under some form of Russian control—see EDM, May 1). Rather, many ethnic Russians perceive people from the Caucasus as foreign at best and all too often as hostile aliens. Indeed, there has been a spate of race riots against people from the Caucasus in Russia in recent times (see EDM, March 5), which presumably was something the organizers of the May 18 rally were trying to provoke. It is tempting to conclude that the irregular Russian juggernaut now fighting in eastern Ukraine is held together by its common goals, but it will have to keep winning future victories or it will dissolve in internal squabbling.

The evidence that the Kremlin is working with neo-Nazi or ultranationalist forces in Donbas is highly ironic but not surprising. The regime’s allies in the Russian Far Right make the Kremlin’s warnings of a “neo-Nazi” takeover in Kyiv seem even more incredulous. Ostensibly, it was concerns over the role of the Ukrainian neo-Nazi group “Right Sector” and its leader Dmitri Yarosh in the new government that served as justification for the Russian government to annex Crimea. Kremlin propaganda from the time told of mass shootings carried out by Right Sector and even broadcast what it alleged to be photographs of corpses lying in freshly-dug mass graves ( While, Right Sector has indeed been involved in a number of violent actions in Ukraine such as an April 2014 attack on a court and judge in the country (, the fact that the Kremlin is working with its own domestic neo-Nazi movement makes its claims seem all the more disingenuous.

The Russian Far Right’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis and its growing ties to the Kremlin also provide a warning of how volatile the current situation is inside Russia itself. If such trends continue, the next Kremlin occupant could very well be openly sympathetic to the Russian neo-Nazi movement, and such an outcome would truly be a dire situation for the country, Eurasia and the world (see EDM, February 13, 2012).




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