Who are the pro-Ukrainian groups behind the Belgorod border attack?

A dramatic, days-long incursion into Russian territory has raised questions about the Kremlin’s defenses, but also whether Ukraine might be going to extremes in its attempts to invade them.

The Belgorod border raid has thrust two groups of largely unknown neo-Nazi fighters into the heart of the conflict.

Russia blames Kiev for the attack, but Ukraine denies any involvement.

As the chaos and confusion subsides, the two militant groups have emerged from relative obscurity to claim responsibility, taunt the Kremlin and promise more to come.

NBC News takes a look at who and what appears to be behind the raid.

What do we know about the groups?

Two groups claiming to be Russians fighting on behalf of Ukraine say they carried out the attack. Both describe themselves as Russian dissidents and have members who espouse white nationalist views.

The Russian Volunteer Corps, or RVC, says it is made up of Russians fighting on the side of Ukraine and against Putin’s government. The group made headlines in March when they claimed to be behind a smaller raid in the Bryansk region.

The commander, Denis Kapustin, who also goes by the surname Nikitin, is a white nationalist and ex-football hooligan who shares neo-Nazi views.

Kapustin is on Russia’s federal wanted list and on the register of extremists and terrorists.

The US-based Anti-Defamation League has described Kapustin as “a Russian neo-Nazi who lived in Germany for many years”. He goes by the nickname “White Rex” and is said to have founded a clothing brand of the same name popular among Russian neo-Nazis.

The RVC’s channel on the Telegram messaging app has more than 110,000 followers and has shared photos of the group’s fighters on the front lines.

Some of their posts have anti-immigration and pro-white European rhetoric. In a post on Tuesday, the group clarified that it “sticks to right-wing conservative political views and traditionalist beliefs.”

The group says it is made up mostly of volunteers, ethnic Russians and Russian citizens who live in Ukraine and have been fighting for Kiev since 2014.

The Freedom of Russia Legion is the other group that claims to have been involved, also portraying themselves as Russians fighting for Ukraine and against Putin.

The legion says on its website that it was founded last spring “out of the desire of the Russians themselves to fight against Putin’s armed gang in the ranks of the armed forces of Ukraine.”

The group calls on Russian soldiers and officers to join them in the fight for ‘Free Russia’.

It claims to be officially recognized by the Ukrainian army and to fight “under the direction of the Ukrainian command”.

The group was banned as a terrorist organization by Russia’s Supreme Court in March.

The group’s site does not share specific names of leaders or people affiliated with the Legion. But a man nicknamed “Caesar” has appeared in videos as his de facto spokesperson.

“We are Russians, just like you,” he said in a video Monday before the raid, denouncing Putin’s corruption and crackdown on civil liberties. “We’re coming home,” he said.

The Legion said in March that Russia had launched a criminal case against “Caesar” without disclosing his real name.

The Legion also has a strong presence on Telegram, with over a quarter of a million subscribers, where they refer to themselves as “Free Citizens of Russia.”

Earlier this month, RVC vowed to fight alongside the Legion “despite a different ideological base”. It is not clear how many fighters are in either group.

“The Russian Volunteer Corps seems particularly drawn to Russian nationalists and neo-Nazis, while the Legion seems less politically oriented,” Mark Galeotti, who heads the Russia-focused consultancy Mayak Intelligence, told NBC News.

“They share a desire to see Putin’s regime fall and believe that a Ukrainian victory is the best way to achieve this goal,” Galeotti said.

What is their motivation?

Kapustin, the commander of the RVC, told the press at the Russian border on Wednesday that his group makes no secret of the right-wing views of some members, but that he does not consider it an insult to be labeled a neo-Nazi.

“You’ll never see me waving a swastika flag, you’ll never, I don’t know, raise my hand in a Nazi salute,” he said.

Wearing a goatee and all-black military gear, Kapustin praised the success of the Belgorod attack and said a broader operation was planned.

The group says it fully recognizes Ukraine’s territorial integrity and considers Putin’s war in Ukraine “criminal”. It lists the “overthrow of the ruling regime in Russia” as one of its objectives.

Meanwhile, Alexei Baranovsky, the spokesman for the Legion’s political wing, told Reuters the raid was “the first steps in the main goal of overthrowing Putin’s regime through armed force.”

In a post on the group’s Telegram channel on Wednesday, the Legion promised to return soon. “Belgorod, Bryansk, Kursk, Voronezh, Rostov, Moscow – wait for us,” the post read.

The group’s manifesto calls Putin’s regime “dictatorial,” saying they are fighting against him and “for true freedom for every Russian.” It also calls on both ethnic Russians and minorities in the country to rise up against the Russian leader.

“It is clear that the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps are both predominantly Russian groups – self-proclaimed ‘partisans’ trying to overthrow the Putin government and that they range from neo-Nazis who are football thugs to the wannabe celebrities and even to some semi-serious political reformers,” said Michael Clarke, visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London.

“They are not ‘liberals’, but rather tough Russian nationalists – just not the Putin type,” Clarke added.

NBC News reached out to both groups, but they didn’t immediately respond.

What is their connection with Ukraine?

The Kremlin does not dispute that some fighters involved in this week’s raid could be ethnic Russian, but considers them “Ukrainian militants, originating from Ukraine,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Ukraine has denied involvement in actions by either group, deeming them “Russian patriots” who decided to revolt against the Kremlin.

The groups’ extreme stances and evidence that the fighters involved in this week’s attack appeared to be using US armored vehicles have raised questions for Washington, which has sought to ensure that equipment sent to Kiev is not used. in attacks on Russian soil.

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, told NBC News that the raid was carried out “exclusively by citizens of the Russian Federation” who had acted “fully autonomously” and that Ukraine was not coordinating with them.

Baranovsky, of the Legion, said the unit was part of Ukraine’s international brigade, but denied that the raid was coordinated with Ukrainian authorities.

But Kapustin, the RVC commander, said Ukraine “encouraged” the group’s actions in Belgorod, and that they “consult their actions” with the Ukrainian military, although he said anything they do outside the country’s borders “our own decision”.

Experts also questioned Kiev’s narrative that it was a purely Russian affair.

“There is no doubt that the Russian volunteer units are armed and controlled by Ukraine,” Galeotti said.

“While it suits Kiev to pretend that this was just an enterprise of Russian patriots, it would only have been carried out on the orders of the GUR, or at least with its approval,” he added, referring to the intelligence service of the GUR. Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

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