With the Russian invasion of Ukraine reduced to a protracted battle for the Donbas, discontent grows in Russian military and ultranationalist circles. This, warns Alexandr Burilkov, could lead to the formation of paramilitary groups aiming for a Russia of the revolutionary right
The failure of the Kiev offensive shifted Russia’s strategic focus in the ongoing war in Ukraine to the Donbas. The Kremlin is now parading the seizure of the entire Donbas, or even just the oblast of Luhansk, as the 'true' objective of its war.
Grand narratives of 'denazification', which hinted at regime change in Ukraine and embedded an ideological dimension to the conflict (or full-fledged annexation), are absent in this minimalist narrative. Indeed, even the territorial scope of objectives has been reduced. The partition of Ukraine, the capture of Odessa, the seizure of Transnistria; all have faded from the discourse of Putin and his senior advisers.
This recalibration of strategic objectives has not gone unnoticed by veterans’ organisations and ultranationalist groups. Both are relevant selectorates for the Kremlin. Military bloggers, veterans’ channels, and the far-right fringe flourish on Telegram. They routinely reach audiences of hundreds of thousands, even millions, in Russia, despite government efforts to contain social media. On these platforms, discontent grows with the so-called special military operation.
Grievances centre on several key points. Everyday conditions for troops on the front are poor, particularly relating to medical care. Pay and benefits are inadequate, especially compared to the wealth of the elite – and the elite is the cause of corruption and arbitrary rule in Russia.
Military bloggers, veterans’ channels, and the far-right fringe routinely reach audiences of hundreds of thousands, even millions, in Russia
The war damages Russian military power. However, it does not correspondingly damage NATO, because the West is fighting this war through its Ukrainian 'Slavic proxies'. Most saliently, Putin has not formally declared war or ordered general mobilisation. This is widely considered necessary to generate sufficient combat power to be able to claim victory. Without general mobilisation, the war drags on without purpose.
The attitude of these critics varies regarding the Russian political status quo. Veterans’ groups tend to be supportive of the Kremlin as an institution, even as they criticise the war. Their perspective is exemplified by repeated critiques from the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly which call, variously, for general mobilisation – or even for Putin's resignation.
Ultranationalist commentators are significantly harsher in tone. Most notable is Igor 'Strelkov' Girkin. Girkin, a former FSB officer, was instrumental in organising separatist militias in 2014, and in the shooting down of MH-17. He continues to criticise Moscow harshly for abandoning total war in Ukraine.
Girkin's line of thinking is representative of far-right attitudes in Russia. Notably, this milieu is linked to the notorious Wagner Group, named in honour of Hitler's favourite composer. This paramilitary organisation is highly active in Ukraine, seemingly outside the official chain of command. Its founder and commander, Dmitry 'Wagner' Utkin is, like Girkin, a committed far-right ideologue.
The Kremlin, for its part, has managed to co-opt the far-right over the years. However, linkages remain tenuous and subject to the fulfilment of objectives relevant to the ultranationalists. According to these, a militaristic Russia must confront the 'decadent', 'Anglo-American' West. It must reassert control over ethnically Russian territories. And it must trigger a revolution in Russian society that would purge – spiritually or physically – liberalism and non-Slavic ethnicities.
The question, therefore, is whether discontent among these extremist groups might lead to paramilitary mobilisation.
The invasion of Ukraine is unique. It is a high-intensity interstate conflict between industrialised countries, with hundreds of thousands of troops and the most modern military technologies. The conflict has already claimed tens of thousands of casualties. If, as looks increasingly likely, Russia achieves only minimal objectives, Russian nationalists would view this effectively as a defeat.
If Russia achieves only minimal objectives, nationalists and the far-right will see it as a defeat
This blend of mass military mobilisation, nationalist politics, and a seemingly inexplicable loss on the battlefield has historical precedent. Specifically, it echoes Germany immediately after the end of the First World War, when the fragile Weimar Republic came into being.
In 1918, Germany's Freikorps (free companies) at first tacitly supported the SPD government against socialist and communist revolutionaries. They did so even though their ultimate goal was right-wing regime change. After 1923, however, the Freikorps progressed to street violence against the SPD government. At their peak, they mobilised between 500,000 and 1.5 million armed veterans. People joined up because they felt betrayed by certain members of German society (the notorious 'stab in the back' myth), because economic support for war veterans was poor, and because they clung to nationalist political views. A similar myth is already emerging on the Russian right.
Veterans’ movements are not new in Russia. Veterans of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, were prominent in nationalist politics during the 1990s, advancing a narrative of soldiers forgotten and betrayed by the empire. Meanwhile, the harshness of army life in Russia has prompted the creation of associations for mutual aid. These try to reintegrate soldiers into civilian life, and help them navigate military bureaucracy.
The war in Ukraine is both devastating and central to Russian nationalism; as it drags on and economic hardship worsens, the emergence of far-right paramilitaries becomes more likely
However, the war in Afghanistan was peripheral and limited in scope. In contrast, the war in Ukraine is not only devastating in scope, but central to Russian nationalism. A defeat in Ukraine would be a significant catalyst for right-wing mobilisation. Economic hardship caused by sanctions, along with the redistribution of dwindling resources to the elite to maintain regime legitimacy, would exacerbate the situation.
Significant debates in the West centre on whether Putin can weather the consequences of the war, and whether a Russia without Putin would be a better outcome. As the war drags on, however, conditions in Russia will ripen for the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries in the form of mass mobilisation of disgruntled combat veterans.
Some might act merely in support of the security services and a nationalist, illiberal Kremlin. But others, linked to the revolutionary right, will seek violent regime and societal change in Russia. Such a scenario would place significant pressure on any Russian government to stay the course of confrontation with the West, regardless of who occupies the presidency.