‘Fear your partisans’ A volunteer unit led by a Russian neo-Nazi raided a small town and crossed back into Ukraine. Meduza explains the bizarre incursion and what it could mean for the war.
On the morning of March 2, Bryansk Governor Alexander Bogomaz announced that a “sabotage and reconnaissance group from Ukraine” had crossed into the small border town of Liubechane, allegedly shooting at a vehicle, killing a local resident, and wounding a 10-year-old child. The governor also reported another attack “by Ukraine’s Armed Forces” in the town of Sushany after a drone strike allegedly started a fire in a residential building. Unconfirmed reports soon spread on Telegram that between 40 and 50 “saboteurs” entered the Bryansk region on Thursday. Meduza examines what happened in Thursday’s incursions, what we know about the group responsible (the Russian Volunteer Corps), and how this bizarre incident fits into the war’s larger story.
In the hours that followed the apparent incursions into two towns in Bryansk, Russian state media declined to broadcast any footage from on the ground (perhaps due in part to alleged drone strikes against surveillance cameras at nearby border checkpoints).
Thursday’s reports about events in the two towns outside Bryansk were contradictory, with some state propaganda outlets claiming that a school bus came under gunfire, though local officials later denied this account. Some news outlets also reported that militants took hostages in both towns and later engaged in a firefight with Russian troops. District officials in Sushany, however, never verified that hostages were taken. Some journalists also wrote about explosions at a power substation and gas station in Sushany, but officials didn’t confirm these reports, either.
By evening on Thursday, Russia’s Federal Security Service said it had forced the enemy back into Ukraine and launched a “massive artillery strike” at its positions, though there is not yet any independent verification that this counterattack actually occurred.
Ukrainian officials have been coy about Thursday’s incursion, denying Kyiv’s involvement and calling the incident a “classic provocation,” though some have framed the militants’ actions as a demonstration of a supposedly wider “partisan movement” growing inside Russia. For example, Zelensky administration adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter that “growing poverty” in Russia is fueling a “stronger and more aggressive” partisan movement. “Fear your partisans,” Podolyak tweeted. Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine's Military Intelligence Directorate, called the incursion “the continuation of Russia’s transformation,” and said, “maybe Russians are starting to wake up, to realize something, and take some concrete steps.”
Shortly after the first reports about an incursion in the Bryansk region, a video circulated online showing two armed men standing in front of a building bearing a sign that read, “Liubechane Medical and Obstetrical Station.” The footage appeared originally on the Telegram channel of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK). In the short clip, the men state that they’re “not at war with civilians,” and they call on “ordinary Russian citizens” to “rise up and fight.” On Telegram, the group also promised more videos that will supposedly refute criticisms and claims made about their “exploits.”
A second video apparently recorded in Liubechane also circulated online showing two men identifying themselves as RDK combatants. In this footage, they raise the blue-and-white Russian Volunteer Corps flag while standing in front of a post office as gunfire is audible in the background.
Journalists at iStories later spoke to a militant who allegedly took part in the incursion. He described a relatively simple operation:
Another video apparently recorded by militants who crossed into Sushany also surfaced online, but it features only an unseen narrator and the sound of a single gunshot. The pro-invasion Telegram channel Voennyi Osvedomitel (Military Informer) also posted a photograph showing a supposed “Ukrainian saboteur” carrying a sign apparently ripped from the exterior wall of the town’s recreation center.
Denis the Menace
The star of the Bryansk incursions (the man in the footage from Liubechane who calls for an uprising) is 38-year-old Denis Kapustin, a neo-Nazi born in Moscow who moved with his family to Germany in 2001, reportedly (and ironically, given his political views today) as Jewish refugees. Within a few months, he secured a permanent residence permit that he would use in the years ahead to build connections with right-wing groups across Europe.
According to journalists at Agentstvo, Kapustin became immersed in the violent cultures of street fighting and soccer hooliganism while living in Germany. Adopting the surname Nikitin (which he still prefers to this day), he was, in his own words, “a street guy and a skinhead, knocking skulls.”
At some point, Nikitin returned to Russia and became involved in the CSKA Moscow fan movement. He also started organizing MMA fighting tournaments that attracted local far-right activists and was soon traveling throughout Europe, engaging members of Germany’s neo-Nazi National Democratic Party and the Italian neo-fascist movement CasaPound. In 2017, extremism expert Robert Claus called Nikitin “a key figure among right-wing extremists in Europe” and “one of the most dangerous neo-Nazis on the continent.”
In 2008, Nikitin sought to commercialize his appeal within the right-wing community and launched his own fashion brand called “White Rex,” which markets clothing with thinly veiled Nazi symbols, like t-shirts that read, “SS for Sweet n’ Sexy,” and apparel featuring neo-Nazi symbols like the Black Sun and the so-called Fourteen Words. Nikitin has endorsed racist precepts common among neo-Nazis, namely white supremacy. (He’s also fond of comparing non-white people to apes.) In 2016, he helped instigate mass brawls between Russian and English soccer fans during the European Football Championship in Marseille, France.
Still organizing MMA tournaments, Nikitin relocated in 2017 to Ukraine, where he established close ties to members of the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian military formation controversial for its early and allegedly continuing association with far-right groups and neo-Nazi ideology. In 2018, for example, Azov International Branch Secretary Olena Semenyaka credited Nikitin with helping her network with far-right activists across Europe, thanks in part to his fluency in German and English. Nikitin even represented Azov at some international conferences.
In 2019, however, German officials banned Nikitin from entering the E.U. for the next 10 years on the grounds that his neo-Nazi activism constitutes a public safety threat. Journalists at Der Spiegel later wrote that the Ukrainian authorities once detained Nikitin on suspicion of drug trafficking, but this report was never confirmed. (Journalists in Ukraine say his case file is classified.)
The Russian Volunteer Corps
In the fall of 2022, Nikitin created the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) “from ethnic Russians” to fight on the side of Ukraine against the invasion. It’s unknown how many fighters there are in the group. (Organizers conceal this information.) In interviews, Nikitin has said that other nationalities have their own specialized volunteer battalions in Ukraine, but there was nothing exclusively for Russians until his unit.
According to Nikitin, RDK started “interacting” with Ukraine’s Armed Forces in August 2022, but it wasn’t recognized as a formal unit within the military. “I had to get to the president of Ukraine to declare ourselves and ask for the chance to fight officially. The president gave the green light, and everything started moving in a single day,” Nikitin claims. In October 2022, RDK published its own manifesto where it identified itself as “part of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.” But Ukrainian officials have not confirmed the military’s ties to the group.
Citing “various ideological differences,” Nikitin has also been clear that the Russian Volunteer Corps does not collaborate with militants in the Freedom of Russia Legion (another unit comprising Russian nationals fighting on Ukraine’s side).
Not likely a Russian false flag
In 2019, a high-ranking German intelligence officer told Der Spiegel that Nikitin is “perhaps closer to the Russian authorities than we can currently prove.” Then and now, however, other experts say it’s unlikely that Nikitin has ties to Russia’s special services, partly because he’s spent the last several years living in Ukraine.
Following the first reports on March 2 about the incursions into the Bryansk region, multiple news outlets claimed that Russia’s National Security Council would hold an emergency meeting later in the day to discuss the attacks. If the meeting had actually happened and led to the rapid adoption of new war measures, that might suggest that the Kremlin knew in advance about the incursions and planned its response. But Vladimir Putin’s spokesman soon clarified that the next National Security Council meeting wouldn’t be until March 3, as previously scheduled. Meanwhile, an anonymous source in the Federation Council told Verstka Media that the president would meet later in the day with individual Security Council members to craft a response to Thursday’s events.
Putin eventually made a public statement, speaking via teleconference at a teachers’ ceremony, denouncing the incursions as a “terrorist attack.”
Not the first incursion into Russia
In December 2022, Russia’s Federal Security Service reported multiple attempted “sabotage and terrorist acts” in the Bryansk region. On December 26, for example, the FSB said border guards killed four Ukrainian combatants in an alleged “sabotage group” that crossed into Russia with plans to commit “terrorist attacks.” The agency also released a video showing bloodied bodies lying in the snow and later named the dead men — allegedly fighters from the Bratstvo Battalion, a volunteer group of Ukrainian special forces without formal ties to the military. (Bratstvo was founded in 2002 by Ukrainian nationalist Dmytro Korchynsky, who fought with Ukrainian volunteers against Russian troops in Chechnya in 1996 and unsuccessfully ran for Ukraine’s presidency in 2004.)
Journalists at The Insider noted several oddities and inconsistencies in the FSB’s video, like the fact that the killed “saboteurs” are wearing clean boots despite allegedly having marched many miles to cross the border. Additionally, the Bratstvo Battalion isn’t previously known to have participated in any operations behind enemy lines.
Following December’s alleged incursion, officials in Bryansk reported the completion of reinforcements to fortifications in the defense line along the border with Ukraine. Judging by published photographs, the new barricades comprised various structures and “dragon’s teeth” anti-tank barriers.
Together with United Russia party boss Andrey Turchak, Governor Bogomaz personally inspected the upgraded defense line. With characteristic hyperbole, Turchak declared that the new fortifications were “groundbreaking.” “Not even a mouse will slip through,” he added.
The security situation at Russia’s borders (and a potential motive for Ukraine in Bryansk)
In 2004, Russia’s Border Service abandoned its “linear” approach and adopted a region-focused strategy. The policy involved major cutbacks, abolishing numerous posts along the border. A year later, the State Duma replaced Russia’s border troops with an array of border-control agencies, significantly reducing the number of combat units on guard duty.
It’s possible that the incursion into the Bryansk region was intended to demonstrate the weakness of Russia’s current border defenses. After Thursday’s “sabotage” incident, Moscow might find it necessary to deploy reinforcements throughout the area, drawing Russian soldiers away from other parts of the frontline inside Ukraine.