The Russian Imperial Movement in the Ukraine Wars: 2014-2023.

AuthorWebber, Lucas

The outbreak of post-Maidan (a) hostilities in 2014 saw Ukraine become a hotspot for ideological militias on both sides of the conflict, and Russia's February 2022 invasion brought this to a whole new level. Russian President Vladimir Putin created a storm of controversy when he declared "de-Nazification" as one of the "Special Military Operation's" objectives. Putin was referring to hardline nationalist fighters from Azov, Freikorps, Right Sector, and other formations. However, many were quick to point out the irony of his statement, considering Russia has various far-right elements fighting in and alongside its armed forces, including the neo-Nazi Rusich organization and volunteers from the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). (1) RIM had been active in Ukraine since 2014, when it deployed its paramilitary arm, the Russian Imperial Legion (RIL), to support separatist forces in the Donbas.

According to RIM's telling of its organizational history, the group's combatants were in Ukraine from 2014 to 2017. (2) After time spent operating in Syria, Libya, and possibly the Central African Republic, the Russian Imperial Legion returned to Ukraine in 2022 to join the invasion and continue frontline operations. (3) RIM views the Russian war effort as an opportunity to help reconquer "Novaya Rossiya" (New Russia), a large swath of eastern and southern Ukraine. "RIM describes itself as an imperialist, ultra-reactionary, Russian Orthodox, fascist, anti-liberal, and anti-communist organization." (4)

RIM and its Partizan training organization have links to some of these groups fighting on the Russian and separatist side, including the neo-Nazi Rusich Sabotage Assault Reconnaissance Group. In fact, Rusich leader Alexey Milchakov apparently met his friend and second in command Yan Petrovsky while volunteering with the Imperial Legion-linked Aid Coordination Center of Novorossiya (KTsPN) in June 2014. (5) Moreover, on Milchakov's Vkontakte social media page, he stated that he and Petrovsky formed Rusich after going through the Partizan paramilitary training program in 2014. (6) The findings of an analysis by New America Foundation found significant online overlap between members and supporters of RIM, Rusich, and two of Russia's VDV airborne paratrooper units as well as geolocation evidence that RIL and Rusich share training grounds in Saint Petersburg. (7) Partizan Center described the shooting range used by both as under the control of the "the Ministry of Emergency Situations." (8) A post on Rusich's VK page once announced a coalition of "Right-wing detachments on guard of the Russian spring," which was composed of six groups to include the Imperial legion. (9)

Further, RIM has built a robust online and real-world propaganda apparatus to recruit, fundraise, and broadcast its members' battlefield heroics. (10) It is an organization that has connections to the Russian Ministry of Defence and a new policy requires RIM and other volunteer detachments to sign contracts to comply with the Russian state. (11) The Imperial Legion has developed relations with the military establishment as well as Donbas separatist groups and irregular formations such as Wagner and Rusich. (12)

Photos posted by the organization show RIL fighters operating near Vulhledar in Donetsk Oblast and elsewhere. (b) Aside from its links to hard-right separatist militias in the Donbas, RIM reportedly has transnational relations with extreme far-right European organizations such as the Nordic Resistance Movement and has trained members of such groups from Denmark, Slovakia, Germany, and elsewhere. (13)

This article will add original research to the existing literature and fill open-source knowledge gaps related to RIM and RIL's roles and history in Ukraine's 2014 post-Maidan conflict and since the February 2022 invasion. A significant number of Russian-language materials were used for this study, with an emphasis on primary sources from the VK and Telegram pages and channels used by RIM, RIL, and the Partizan training network. It will examine RIM's origins, history, leadership, ideology, and involvement in the Donbas War and the subsequent February 2022 invasion. Along the way, it will look at RIM/RIL's propaganda activities, international influence operations, and the potential threat its members and allies pose abroad.

RIM emerged in the early 2000s as a political movement and later expanded its international ties and created its paramilitary branch, RIL. Two figures, Anatoloyevich Vorobyev and Denis Valliullovich Gariyev, are examined as they are essential to understanding the rise of RIM and RIL. The Russian Imperialist Movement's revanchist ideology is likewise important in understanding why the organization and its armed wing are aligned with Moscow's war efforts in Ukraine, despite its suspicions of the Kremlin. Stanislav Vorobyev sees "the stability of anti-Russian regimes on all the territory inhabited by the Russian ethnos" as the greatest threat to Russia. (14)

Certain events, too, have influenced the evolution of the organization, including the 2014 Maidan Revolution and the subsequent Donbas conflict as well as Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Put together, these aspects and details inform a threat analysis based on RIM's working relationship with the Russian government, its ideology and intent, as well as its operational capacity.

Origins and History

The Russian Imperial Movement was formed around two decades ago but gained increased attention from Western security officials and researchers in the mid- to late 2010s, with the group being designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity by the U.S. Department of State and the Canadian government in April 2020. (15) Individual designations were placed on RIM leaders Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev, Denis Valliullovich Gariyev, and Nikolay Nikolayevich Trushchalov..

These designations arrived in the broader context of rising concern over Russian meddling in Western political affairs and the emergence of the semi-state Wagner Group (which are unrelated as organizations) to further Kremlin interests abroad. As the designation itself outlined, RIM itself has expanded its influence beyond Russian borders and has possibly trained foreigners, including two members of Sweden's Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), who, between November 2016 and September 2016, went on to bomb a cafe and tried to bomb a migrant center and attempt to blow up a refugee camp site. (16) During the trial, Swedish prosecutors said the perpetrators may have learned bomb-making at RIM's Partizan training center. A RIM leader spoke at an NRMhosted event called "Nordic Days" in 2015, and RIM has reportedly provided financial support to the NRM. (17) In September 2017, a RIM representative also spent time networking in the U.S. with the national socialist Traditionalist Worker Party. (18)

RIM and its military wing, Russian Imperial Legion (RIL), have developed a robust online media apparatus, a real-life on-the-ground networking campaign, and a sizable and growing Internet following within Russia and internationally. (c) This includes websites, VK pages, and Telegram channels for RIM, RIL, and the still active Partizan training network that are geared to recruit, spread messages, fundraise, and show its members' activism, training, and battlefield activities. (d)

Russia has a diverse ecosystem of ideologically extreme far-right paramilitary groups, including the overtly neo-Nazi Rusich, the survivalist network WPRS (White Power Rangers Squad), the hooligan formation Espanola, followers of the Russian National Unity movement, RIM/RIL, and more. (19) While RIM is sometimes labeled as a neo-Nazi movement, the outfit more accurately describes itself as an imperialist, ultra-reactionary, Russian Orthodox, fascist, anti-liberal, and anti-communist organization. (20) RIM certainly appeals to white identity in wanting a "mono-ethnic state" and some of its members may harbor neo-Nazi beliefs, but efforts are made to distinguish its ideology, which is most focused on reviving and fighting to protect the Russian people and the Orthodox faith both at home and abroad. RIM aspires for a political system based on Tsarist Russia rather than Nazi Germany. (21) With this said, RIM certainly works with an international coalition of neo-Nazi groups. (22)

RIM has overtly stated its ambitions to "continue to establish contacts with right-wing, traditionalist and conservative organizations around the world" to "share the experience of political [and] information warfare and joint squad tactics training." (23) RIM uses both activism and military means to project power and influence abroad. (24) To increase its reach, RIM has aligned with the Russian political party Rodina (The Motherland-National Patriotic Union) to establish the World National-Conservative Movement (WNCM) conference series to rally against the values of "liberalism, multiculturalism, and tolerance." (25) In 2015, the movement brought together 58 organizations from North America, Europe, and even Chile, Japan, Mongolia, Syria, and Thailand. (26) One commonly circulated photo from a conference shows Rusich leaders Alexey Milchakov and Yan Petrovsky posing with American extreme far-right "race realist" Jared Taylor. (27)

RIM has been somewhat critical of the Kremlin for quite some time, but the relationship seems to be getting closer in ways--especially since the invasion--as the Imperial Legion further expanded its role in Russian-involved armed conflicts. (28) (e) The Imperial Legion deepened connections with Russia's military establishment through its role in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and unconfirmed reports of operations in the Central African Republic. (29) Despite this, frustrations exist. On June 11, 2023, RIM complained on Telegram about Russian President Vladimir Putin continuing his policy of not killing Ukraine's political elite and Western leaders...

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