Radical nationalism has long been one of the leading threats to Russia’s national security. However, in recent years, and especially during the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin has tried to co-opt the nationalists to use them to mobilize the population. At the moment, according to Donald Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, there are increasing signs that the political situation may be gradually drifting out of the president’s control.
As the official investigation into the killing of Boris Nemtsov has pursued the so-called «Chechen trail» in recent weeks, less attention has been given to another theory regarding the assassination that also was popular in the first days after the shooting. The Chechen suspects may have been set up to deflect suspicion from the real masterminds of the crime—nationalist extremist groups on the political periphery with links to either the security services or hawks within Putin’s inner circle. These groups have all been pressing Putin to take a more aggressive approach in Ukraine and against powerful Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, whom they see as undermining the Russian state. With the Nemtsov killing, so the theory goes, they hoped to provoke Putin into assuming a tougher stance. We will likely never know for sure who is responsible for Nemtsov’s death, but such speculation reflects the fact that the violent nationalist organizations on which Putin has relied, especially since his return to the presidency, are becoming more powerful and difficult to control.
Radical nationalism has long been one of the leading threats to Russia’s national security, a danger noted by Putin himself during an appearance on a call-in show last month. Over the past decade several large-scale underground nationalist groups have been crushed by law enforcement authorities. At the same time, the Kremlin has tried to co-opt the nationalists to use them to mobilize the population behind the Ukraine war. They have been allowed to hold large-scale rallies in downtown Moscow and to stage publicity stunts, such as Putin publicly riding with the Nationalist Night Wolves biker gang. Some groups probably quietly receive financial or political support from elements of the leadership.
Russian radical nationalists, including groups such as the National Democratic Party, the National Socialist Initiative, the Russian Imperial Movement, and the Russian National Union, supported the so-called «Russian Spring»—the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, and the granting of independence to the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. According to a recent report by the SOVA organization (which tracks violent extremist groups), Russian official propaganda has become more traditionalist, militarist, and authoritarian since the Crimean annexation, and this has created fertile ground for the development of new, more uncontrollable extremist organizations—some of which are armed—that have displaced many older groups whom the Kremlin has long manipulated and sometimes sponsored. But these nationalists’ support for Putin is slipping, SOVA found, in response to criticisms of current Kremlin policy: that it does not adequately support the «Russians» in the Ukrainian southeast; that it primarily aims to advance the personal and mercantile interests of Putin and his circle; that it is providing a pretext for the curtailment of political freedoms in Russia; that it is distracting popular attention from the economy; and that it is being pursued primarily to boost Putin’s personal popularity, not the good of the country.
This combination of Maidan opponents, assorted radical nationalist organizations, and returning fighters from eastern Ukraine is a volatile and potentially destabilizing mix. Particularly dangerous are the fighters—perhaps 2,000 in all, according to a recent Brookings/Atlantic Council Report—who operate in rogue units only loosely under Russian, DNR, or LNR command.
Although individual affiliations are fluid and overlapping, the fighters include members of Cossack organizations, Chechens, Afghan war veterans, former inmates of Russian prisons, members of Russian ultranationalist groups with links to domestic nationalists and power structures inside Russia, former Ukrainian security force members, and several hundred fighters from other countries. (The neo-Nazi Russian National Unity Group has also actively recruited volunteers from the Internet, and the National Liberation Movement has recruited and outfitted volunteers.) These individuals share common ideological views: anti-Americanism, anti-liberalism, extreme nationalism, a fascination with authoritarianism, and a rejection of European integration. Many will eventually return home with combat experience and a desire to take part in radical nationalist politics.
The far right’s support for Putin is conditional. The extremists will love only a victorious gladiator who constantly moves forward. Should he stumble, the «Black Hundreds» spawned by the illegal annexation of Crimea could sweep over Russia.
As the strains between Putin and the nationalists have increased, the Kremlin has taken steps to bring the groups under control. On the battlefield these measures have included better integrating the fighters into the Russian military command structures, purging recalcitrant radical leaders such as popular hero Igor Girkin (Strelkov), and helping separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk restrict the operations of armed independent units. (Pro-Moscow separatists may have liquidated independent-minded commander Alexander Bednov, organizer of a militia unit in the Luhansk People’s Republic.) Russian officials reportedly have sometimes closed the Ukrainian border to prevent the return of fighters, and press reports have claimed that last year Russian forces killed several hundred retreating fighters rather than let them cross the frontier. The Kremlin also has used the Prosecutor’s Office in Luhansk to control and arbitrate conflicts among field commanders.
These steps have had mixed success. While in large part Russian and allied separatist forces in Luhansk and Donetsk have made progress in consolidating control, adherence to the Minsk II ceasefire agreement, which is unpopular among the nationalist fighters, has been ragged. A special rapid response unit of the Russian Interior Ministry was sent to Donbass in late March to crack down on Cossacks forming the core of the Don Army, which reportedly had refused to join separatist army structures. Various groups of fighters also struggle over the allocation of resources.
In Moscow, the authorities have renewed pressure on the nationalists, despite their political usefulness for Putin—they balance the growing authority of the Kadyrovtsy (Kadyrov’s followers)—and a reported rivalry between Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev for control over Ukraine policy. The police have conducted searches of the homes of several nationalist leaders, filed criminal cases against some extremists for inciting hatred, and shut down some nationalist websites. The Kremlin has boosted the more controllable, pro-regime patriotic organizations, such as the National Liberation Movement. Putin also has reorganized presidential administration offices that deal with fighters and reshuffled the Federal Security Service (FSB) in an attempt to increase its efficacy in dealing with ethnic and nationality issues and the threat of terrorism, even though some officials in the security services undoubtedly sympathize with the radical nationalists. (Loyalties are cross-cutting: Viktor Zolotov, commander of the Internal Affairs troops who are FSB rivals but Putin loyalists is reportedly close to Kadyrov. Kadyrov’s Sever battalion is formally a part of the Interior Ministry.) In a speech at the Collegium of the Prosecutor’s Office on March 25, Putin called for tougher measures against extremism.
The problem facing the war against extremism is that there are increasing signs that the political situation—particularly Putin’s ability to restrain the radical nationalists while at the same time maintaining a balance between the nationalists and Kadyrov—may be gradually drifting out of the president’s control. Commentator Gleb Pavlovsky recently said he was unsure whether Putin could contain a conflict between Kadyrov and the security services if one arose. «Power [vlast] in Russia is a loosely put together complex of departments that fight one another,» argues journalist and political commentator Konstanin Gaaze. «They are all partly loyal to Putin, but they are all loyal in their own way. And in general, they do what they want.» The elites «no longer feel fear... [and] have lost discipline. They lie to and attempt to manipulate the Kremlin.» Alarmingly, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky recently claimed that there even exist silovik hit teams that operate independently of the government.
The rise in influence of the radical right also constrains Putin’s ability to make decisions. It would resist any decision by Russia’s president to strike a deal with the West over Ukraine; pulling out of Donbass entirely might create a threat to the regime itself. The far right’s support for Putin is thus conditional. The extremists will love only a victorious gladiator who constantly moves forward. Should he stumble, the «Black Hundreds» spawned by the illegal annexation of Crimea could sweep over Russia.