As Russians fight for Ukraine, Kyiv is faced with a new dilemma

As a Russian Volunteer Corps fighter is remembered as a ‘brave warrior’, analysts explain why Ukraine is distancing itself from armed groups.

Many RVC fighters hide their identities because they fear for the families and friends they left behind in Russia-1686824339
Many RVC fighters at the funeral hid their identities because they fear for their families and friends left behind in Russia [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Standing next to the coffin with the body of Daniil Maznik, many of his camouflage-clad, battle-tested brothers-in-arms wept.

“He was a brave warrior, a pious Christian, a trustworthy comrade,” Denis Kapustin, Maznik’s commanding officer, said through tears during a farewell ceremony last weekend at the historic Baikove cemetery in Kyiv.

Maznik, a bearded and burly 29-year-old, was killed during one of the most audacious and brazen military operations of the continuing Russia-Ukraine war.

On June 1, he was part of four small military units that crossed into the western Russian region of Belgorod to attack Shebekino, a city of 40,000, and seize the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka.

They clashed with border guards and servicemen and were backed by Ukrainian drone attacks and heavy, indiscriminate artillery fire that included banned cluster munitions, Russian officials claimed.

As they moved forward, tens of thousands of civilians fled Belgorod in panic, and Novaya Tavolzhanka briefly became Russia’s first and only area Moscow did not control.

Denis Kapustin, clad in black, stands next to the coffin of Daniil Maznik and the banner of the Russian Volunteer Corps-1686824350
Denis Kapustin, dressed in black, stands next to the coffin of Daniil Maznik and the banner of the Russian Volunteer Corps [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Maznik led the takeover of a border checkpoint, hijacked an armoured vehicle and captured a serviceman before being mowed down by gunfire on June 3, Kapustin said.

The farewell ceremony held inside a cavernous funeral parlour would have resembled thousands of similar rituals held throughout Ukraine in the past 16 months.

But some things made it look ominously different.

Some of the stern, gloomy men in uniforms wore carefully adjusted masks, hats and sunglasses to avoid being recognised.

None agreed to be interviewed by Al Jazeera, saying they had been “instructed” not to talk to the media.

And not a single Ukrainian official showed up to deliver a eulogy or put flowers on the coffin.

Because Maznik, whose nickname was Shaiba (Puck), was a Russian national and part of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), a small military unit founded by fugitive ultranationalists.

They said they were backed by The Freedom of Russia Legion made up of Russian prisoners of war who switched sides, and groups of volunteers from neighbouring Poland and Belarus.

RVC fighter carry Daniil Maznik's coffin at the Baikovo cemetery in Kyiv-1686824331
RVC fighters carry Daniil Maznik’s coffin at the Baikove cemetery in Kyiv [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

In February 2022, the Kremlin planned a triumphant blitzkrieg to topple Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government.

In the words of the Kremlin, the purpose of Russia’s “special military operation” was to “liberate” Ukraine from Zelenskyy’s “neo-Nazi junta”.

Back then, the very idea that the RVC and its allies would bring the war home to Russia during three raids – in March, late May and early June – would have seemed improbable.

By that measure, Kyiv could have used the raids to trumpet how faltering and feeble Moscow’s war effort is, and how Russian officials failed to protect border regions despite hefty defence budgets.

But it did not.

Instead, Kyiv considers the RVC an independent political force the Kremlin should negotiate with directly.

“We’re observing the course of hostilities and once again urge the Moscow regime to cease fire in the Belgorod region, immediately start talks with the RVC and stop meaningless bloodshed,” Zelenskyy’s aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted on June 5.

“This is a fight of the Russian Goliath against the Russian David,” he wrote, concluding that “Ukraine doesn’t take part in the conflict.”

Analysts say that Ukraine prefers to keep its backing of the RVC with intelligence information, artillery fire and drone attacks a secret – albeit an open one.

“Kyiv is distancing itself from the RVC’s raids into Russia because officially, Ukraine doesn’t wage any military offensive on Russian territory,” David Gendelman, an independent military analyst told Al Jazeera.

“Although everyone understands that no one would let them conduct such operations on their territory during a war, and in reality they are coordinated with Ukrainian intelligence,” he said.

To him, the controversial past of the RVC’s founders is not the reason why Ukraine is so reluctant to admit its backing of the unit.

“Kyiv would equally distance itself from them even if their past was not ultra-right but anything else – red, white or striped,” he said.

One of the reasons is Ukraine’s heavy reliance on Western aid; Western nations have repeatedly warned that the advanced weaponry they provide can only be used on Ukrainian territory.

But the RVC had at least four tactical vehicles that can withstand explosives and were supplied by the United States and Poland, as well as rifles made in Belgium and the Czech Republic, the Washington Post reported on June 3.

Two days later, Belgium said it objects to their use on Russian territory.

“There are extremely strict rules regarding Belgian and other European weapons,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told the Le Soir newspaper. “We asked the Ukrainians to explain the situation.”

Far-right ideologies

Killed RVC fighter Maznik spent years in the Russian military – and used his experience to “transform a small band of desperate Russian guys into a full-fledged military unit,” Kapustin said in his eulogy.

“Shaiba gave six years of his life to the Russian army, knew all the injustices and rot of this machine from inside and passionately fought against it next to us,” Kapustin said.

Russian media claimed that Maznik had been convicted of fraud in Moscow and fled to Ukraine, abandoning his wife and child.

His commander Kapustin, a 39-year-old with bulging muscles and several tattoos who prefers to be called White Rex, is far more outspoken.

Kapustin was born in Russia but spent his formative years in Germany, where he said he was a “street boy, a skinhead, smashed faces.”

He took part in and organised bare-knuckle boxing fights, and German police characterised him as “one of the most influential” far-right activists in Europe.

He moved back to Russia and then fled to Ukraine in 2017. Germany reportedly cancelled his residency permit.

In Kyiv, he opened The White Rex clothing store that sells attire with “Slavic solar symbols” that resemble swastikas and other insignia used in Nazi Germany.

These days, Kapustin is wanted in Russia for allegedly organising a failed assassination attempt on pro-Kremlin tycoon Konstantin Malofeev, whose Tsargrad television channel is one of the loudest pro-war media outlets.

Russian authorities also blacklisted the RVC as a “terrorist organisation” and arrested several men who tried to join it.

Earlier this month, Moscow police conducted three dozen searches of RVC’s alleged supporters, the SOTA news website reported.

Kapustin fanned the flames by saying the RVC wants to topple Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.

“Russia’s collapse will allow us to return home,” he told a news conference in October. “We will facilitate the complete and absolute breakdown of Russia’s political order.”

His words and actions could become perfect fodder for Russia’s vocal supporters.

“I think it would be a sin [in Russia] not to use fully the far-right, radical background of the RVC’s creators,” Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Kyiv-based expert on far-right and ultranationalist groups, told Al Jazeera.

However, pro-war Russian commentators opted not to play this card – because the success of the RVC and its allies only underpins how unprepared Moscow’s armed forces and regional authorities are in dealing with their incursions.

“Most likely, it’s related to the unwillingness of Russian propagandists to attract attention to the fact that groups of Russian nationals don’t just wage a war against [the Kremlin] as part of Ukrainian armed forces, but are very successful in conducting independent operations on Russian territory,” Likhachev said.

Source: Al Jazeera