Ukraine’s awkward allies: the far-right Russians fighting on Kyiv’s side

Denis Nikitin arrived for an interview at a Kyiv restaurant with a pistol strapped to his side and flanked by two armed bodyguards. It would not have been a surprising sight in wartime Ukraine but for one detail: Nikitin is Russian.

Before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Nikitin was known as a notorious Russian nationalist, who built links between far-right groups across Europe and was once a major figure on Russia’s football hooliganism scene.

“If we had met 10 years ago on the outskirts of Luton we might have had a fight. But now I’m a grownup,” he said, dressed all in black, as the two bodyguards glowered from a short distance away.

These days, Nikitin runs the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK, to use its Russian abbreviation), a controversial unit of Russian citizens that fights alongside the Ukrainian army.

RDK, along with another group of Russians fighting on Kyiv’s side, performed several cross-border raids earlier this year, briefly seizing villages inside Russia before retreating back into Ukraine.

The raids – captured in chaotic, high-energy videos posted online – provided a huge PR boost for Kyiv, showing that the Kremlin could not control Russia’s borders and is vulnerable to partisan attacks. Russian authorities labelled RDK “terrorists” and subjected Ukrainian cities to a heavier-than-usual bombardment of missiles in response.

Ukrainian officials suggest that after the full military defeat of Russia and the collapse of the Putin system, RDK and units like it could be part of a pro-Ukrainian force that marches into Russia, perhaps seizing permanent control of parts of Russian territory.

But RDK are complicated allies for Ukraine. Many of its members have far-right views. Nikitin, who grew up in Russia and Germany, has been banned from the Schengen zone since 2019 and has a reputation as one of Europe’s most notorious neo-Nazis. He goes by the name White Rex, also the name of a brand of clothing he set up that uses far-right imagery.

He has lived in Kyiv since 2017, a year after he and other Russian hooligans took part in violent clashes with England fans in Marseille in 2016. From Kyiv, Nikitin ran a series of mixed martial arts competitions credited with bringing together far-right activists from across Europe.

The way Nikitin told it, he has become more anti-Kremlin as the years went by.

“We realised that immigrants are not the ultimate evil; our state is our enemy. We realised we have to fight the state,” he said at the restaurant.

When Putin launched his full-scale assault on Ukraine last year, Nikitin got his chance to fight the Russian state for real. He called friends in the Ukrainian army and asked how he could help. What started as a few Russians in Kyiv informally helping out their Ukrainian friends gradually turned into the nucleus of a battalion.

The first mission into Russia came in early March.

“It was an intoxicating sensation, once we crossed the border for the first time … It was, like, on one hand, this is the Motherland but on the other hand, it’s enemy land,” he said. He claimed his fighters all took “an extra last-resort grenade” in case of capture, aware that torture or worse awaited them if they ended up in the hands of the Russian authorities.

Nikitin speaks perfect English and is clearly enjoying his newfound time in the limelight but his jovial demeanour can change quickly. A German journalist who tracked down his relatives to ask questions about Nikitin’s past “will pay for his work one day”, he said. In a courtroom? “In a court, first. Let’s see how it goes in court. Let’s put it like that.”

Nikitin also blames the media for exaggerating his notoriety. He has never used the phrase “white supremacist”, he claimed, and said he is only called a “neo-Nazi” because he is against “LGBTQ propaganda and cultural Marxism”. But, pressed on his views about Nazi Germany, he admitted that although “genocide and gas chambers are bad, regardless of who does it”, there was much he admired about the Third Reich. “I extremely like the culture, the style. I extremely favour the military,” he said.

The restaurant where Nikitin set the meeting seemed an incongruous venue for such a discussion, as young Kyivites ordered Korean lunch sets. As he discoursed about the Third Reich over the periodic growl of a smoothie-making machine, two Scandinavian diplomats sat at the next table, discussing strengthening democratic institutions and minority rights in Ukraine. Neither table appeared to notice the discussions going on close by.

At one point in the interview, Nikitin broke off the conversation for an hour, to greet a woman who had arrived to see him. She was the sister of an RDK fighter who died during one of the missions into Russia, he said. He handed her a posthumous medal from the Ukrainian authorities, wrapped in a plastic bag.

For Ukraine, a country engaged in fighting Russian expansionism and nationalism, far-right Russian radicals are not obvious allies.

The Ukrainian authorities deny any official links with RDK and other groups of Russian fighters, but this is more a trollish parody of Russia’s longstanding claim not to be behind “separatists” in eastern Ukraine than a serious denial. It is, after all, implausible that Ukraine would allow armed groups of Russians to roam the country without oversight and direction. The raids into Russia appeared to include US-supplied Humvees and other armoured vehicles.

Nikitin said RDK “can rely on Ukrainian intelligence, on the Ukrainian military infrastructure” while the fighters are inside Ukraine, but once they cross into Russia, they are on their own.

Western governments have reportedly put pressure on the Ukrainian government to ensure that military aid from the west should not be used for missions inside Russia or find its way into the hands of RDK.

One source close to Ukrainian intelligence, said: “I know that our western partners are extremely unhappy when it comes to giving them weapons. But we are facing an existential question of war.

“It’s unfortunate that they have those views, but what should we do? Obviously, the only people who are going to pick up a Kalashnikov and cross the border into Russia are, let’s say, specific people.”

There is a danger that by backing RDK, Kyiv feeds persistent Russian propaganda tropes about Ukraine being a haven for Nazis, even if RDK make up a minuscule fraction of Ukraine’s fighting forces, and even though there are more far-right people fighting on Russia’s side in the war. Some of them are Nikitin’s former friends from the football hooligan scene. “Now they write me death threats. They call me traitor, I call them traitors. They say I betrayed our homeland. And I tell them they betrayed our idea,” he said.

Ukrainian authorities prefer to focus attention on another unit of Russians, the Legion of Free Russia, which carried out the raids inside Russia jointly with RDK and does not have the same far-right baggage. They claim the battalions now forming in Ukraine could have a major role in a post-Putin Russia.

“As soon as Russia properly loses the war, Putin’s power vertical will collapse and it will turn out there are lots of private armies that will try to take control of various regions, it will be undoubtedly be a period of chaos … the Legion of Free Russia will be very capable of taking one or more Russian regions under control,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Talk of permanent seizure of Russian territory sounds like fanciful thinking for now. Both RDK and the Legion of Free Russia decline to say how big they are, citing the requirements of military secrecy, but most estimates suggest that the total number of Russian fighters in Ukraine can be counted in the hundreds rather than the thousands – hardly an invading force. But in time, the Russian fighters hope their battalions will grow.

Nikitin said there were many applications from people inside Russia who want to join RDK but have not yet been able to travel. Anastasia Sergeeva of Civic Council, a Warsaw-based organisation working to help bring Russian fighters into Ukraine, said there were “several hundred” outstanding applications from Russians keen to fight on the side of Ukraine.

Civic Council initially recruited on behalf of RDK, but the sides parted ways, with Civic Council saying elements of RDK’s ideology were “incompatible with our values”. Now, Civic Council is working to set up a third battalion of Russians inside Ukraine, to be known as the Siberian Battalion.

The main recruitment issue is that it is not easy for would-be Russian volunteers to get into Ukraine. Even if Ukraine gives them permission to enter, obtaining a visa to transit the Schengen zone en route can be a logistical headache. Both Sergeeva and Nikitin said they believed procedures to bring Russian citizens to Ukraine were about to be eased, though declined to go into details, citing the delicacy of the issue.

All Russian recruits undergo a polygraph test by Ukrainian authorities, which includes questions aimed at uncovering hidden links to Russian intelligence or possible vulnerabilities. “Would you betray Ukraine if your family in Russia was threatened?” is reportedly among the questions asked, two people said.

A Ukrainian official source said there were at least two men claiming to want to fight for Ukraine who were identified as “known Russian operatives” after arriving in Ukraine and are now in jail in the country.

Nikitin claimed he has a nose for double agents, after years of involvement in the football hooligan scene, where there were always police infiltrators. If something is suspicious in the behaviour of a recruit, he said: “We interfere, then we can put you at gunpoint, look into your phone. And if we find something that doesn’t seem right, we’re going into the proper interrogation phase and we see how it goes.”

Of people who had apparently failed this test, he said: “They’re not standing in our way any more. I’ll put it like that.” Everyday discipline in the RDK ranks was also enforced ruthlessly, Nikitin said, claiming he had introduced caning as punishment for recruits who “do something that harms the morale or image” of RDK.

At another location in Kyiv, the Guardian met a Russian man who asked to be identified only by his newly acquired call-sign, “Conscience”. He had recently travelled to Ukraine via a special route organised by RDK. He did not want to share details of the route, but showed evidence that he had been in Moscow just two weeks previously.

Conscience described himself as having traditional views. He said he had never attended protests in Russia but had long been disgusted with Putin’s system. He was horrified by the war in Ukraine.

“A lot of people in Russia are against this war, but they tend to say: ‘Yeah I don’t like it, but what can I do?’ And I thought: ‘Fuck this, I’m going to go there and start killing those bastards,’” he said.

Conscience linked up with an old friend he knew was fighting for RDK, through a secure Telegram chat, and received instructions on how to leave the country. He told none of his friends or family that he was going to Ukraine; his mother thinks he has gone on a long holiday. On the way to Ukraine, he took a set of vacation-style photographs he plans to send her at periodic intervals.

“I understand that, probably, I’ll never see anyone from my old life again,” he said, matter-of-factly.

At a firing range not far outside Kyiv, 10 new RDK recruits in military fatigues laid in the dirt, and on the barked orders of their commander, fired several rounds from automatic weapons at targets 50 metres away. Many covered their faces with masks, citing concerns about family members still living in Russia. Soon, they will head to the front to support Ukrainian operations, their commander said.

The group’s funding comes mainly from private donations by Russian and Ukrainian supporters. One Russian businessman living in exile in Britain said he had helped coordinate fundraising for RDK, although asked for anonymity to protect family members still in Russia.

He dismissed concerns about RDK’s views, saying that unlike the traditional Russian political opposition, they were doing something genuine to fight Putin’s regime.

“For the first time, I saw people who chose not just to say that Putin is bad and that people from the west, or from Planet Mars, should deal with him, but to set up a unit and risk everything to fight against the regime.”

For now, Ukrainian authorities also appear willing to turn a blind eye to RDK’s ideological slant, believing the willingness to fight Putin’s armies trumps any negative publicity that might ensue. Not everyone agrees. A western diplomat based in Kyiv said boosting RDK could prove to be a dangerous strategy for Ukraine. “I think giving these guys weapons is a very bad idea, and I really hope it doesn’t backfire,” said the diplomat.

Nikitin used a cinema metaphor to explain why he believed foreign governments should swallow their discomfort and back his group with weapons: “It was always easy in westerns – the cowboys who had white hats were the good guys, the cowboys who had black hats were the bad guys. But then came The Good, the Bad and the Ugly … where the bad guys are fighting the very bad guys. So, consider it like that: we’re the bad guys, but we’re doing good things.”