The month of May has seen a brazen drone attack on the Kremlin and a major incursion by Russian rebels across the border war into the Russian region of Belgorod. Could this lead to Russians pushing Vladimir Putin out of power? Or all-out civil war?
We may soon mark May 22 as the day the Ukrainian war added a Russian front to the military battle maps. Two far-right Russian units fighting on the side of Ukraine entered the Belgorod region of the Russian Federation, riding on tanks and quickly crossing the border to seize Russian military equipment and take over checkpoints.
This was not the first raid, but it was by far the longest and most successful, before the units were eventually forced to pass back into Ukrainian territory. The Russian Defense Ministry’s delay in reacting and repelling the incursion demonstrated its inability to seal the border and protect its citizens.
The broader Russian opposition — both inside the country and in exile — are actively discussing the Belgorod events and trying to gauge how it will affect the situation in the country. Will such raids become a regular occurrence? Will they grow more ambitious, lasting longer and striking deeper inside Russian territory? Or are these the first flare-ups at the outset of a coming civil war? And, of course, what fate awaits Vladimir Putin?
The Russian Volunteer Corps and the Legion of Free Russia, whose fighters entered the Belgorod region, consist of right-wing and far-right Russian nationalists, some of whom also have criminal histories. According to independent Russian Agents Media, the militants include many members of neo-Nazi organizations and adherents of the monarchist system, aiming to bring down Putin's regime by military means. Many moved to Ukraine in 2014 and received military training alongside the Ukrainian army. Open military actions like this week were rare, with both formations known mostly for sabotage attacks in Russian territory.
"The fighters of the Russian Volunteer Corps crossed the border of the Russian Federation again," is how the Russian fighters described the incursion. "Russia will soon be free. We are home; the time to fight for the freedom of Russia has come."
According to Russian political scientist Mikhail Sheitelman, the Russian Volunteer Corps may have the means to unleash an all-out civil war in Russia. "If the Russian opposition supported the partisans, they would already be in Moscow," Sheitelman told Ukrainian media Channel 24. "For the first time, the whole world is seeing that Russia has an armed alternative to Putin."
Minus Navalny, plus Khodorkovsky
Still, there is much to be sorted out among the Russian opposition. For starters, many of the more liberal faces of the anti-Putin movement are not in step with the right-wing fighters on the ground.
The intentions and methods of these Russian militants have long been questioned by prominent members of the opposition, among them Ilya Ponomarev, a steadfast Putin critic and the only Russian parliament member who voted against the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Yet in an interview with French daily Les Echos, even Ponomarev conceded that something has changed, calling the Russian ultras' actions in Belgorod "the beginning of the process of liberating Russia."
However, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the undeclared leader of Russian opposition-in-exile, did not comment on Belgorod from the perspective of the Russian opposition itself, only confirming that the conditions of war gave Ukraine the right to fight for its independence with all means available.
They are all waiting for something to happen that will allow them to safely return to the country and engage in political struggle under democratic conditions.
It’s also worth noting that top associates of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny, and other influential members of the opposition, also have avoided banking the future of Russian political life with the events in the Belgorod region.
The position of these politicians-in-exile concerning the developments in the Kremlin and Russia as a whole was accurately described by the Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomarev in his interview with Novaya Gazeta Europe back in late November. In his view, the opposition does not understand how Russia can escape its current state.
"People are scared, but potentially millions of Russians are ready at some point to play a role in democratic change. No one is having a dialogue with these people," Ponomarev said. "On the other hand, politicians and activists who have remained in Russia argue that there can, in principle, be no opposition-in-exile. Only those who live in the country can still call themselves that."
Besides their online activities and dialogue, across social channels and YouTube, the Russian opposition is united by another factor: they are all waiting for something to happen that will allow them to safely return to the country and engage in political struggle under democratic conditions.
Fighters of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) during a briefing.
Greetings from Belarus
The Russian opposition lacks both the legitimacy and clarity.
For some in the opposition, the situation in Belarus is instructive. In 2020, the Russian neighbor held rigged presidential elections: Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner, even though, according to foreign exit polls, his main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya should have taken the presidency.
Mass protests broke out, and Tikhanovskaya had to flee under threat of arrest. The election, indeed, makes her the clear legal representative of the Belarusian government-in-exile. Foreign leaders address her as the legitimate representative of the will of the Belarusian people, who can thus speak on their behalf.
The Russian opposition lacks both the legitimacy and clarity. None of the opponents were even allowed to participate in elections. So despite their prominence, for example, neither the jailed Navalny nor the Britain-based Khodorkovsky has true legitimacy.
It is also true that there is no way of knowing what percentage of Russians are ready to fight Putin and the ruling elite, and if so, how: through peaceful protests or military means.
Russia, we must remember, is a sprawling nation, geographically, ethnically and politically. Based on the reaction of the residents of the Belgorod region, they have doubts that Putin will expend any capital on their fate. Whether they support or oppose the war, they did not expect it to come to their cities. And now, they see that the rest of Russia does not care much about their fate, with Belgorod barely ever shown on Russian state TV channels.
Waiting for Ukraine
To some degree, the impact of the opposition looks destined to be minor. Russian anti-government battalions amount to only hundreds of ultra-right-wing activists who have no political voice; politicians-in-exile have no electorate; and Russians as a whole have no alternative leader to Putin. For the entire 143 million-strong Russian Federation, no matter how ironic it may seem, only the Kremlin leader remains the unifying factor.
Russian journalist Andrei Malgin, in an interview with the Vot Tak YouTube channel, said that under the current circumstances, there are no good outcomes for Russia because the opposition is too toothless, the militants are too extremist, and the most popular figure among Russians today is the leader of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin,
"There is a danger on all sides that after Putin, Russia will be more right-wing than our liberal emigrants would like," he said. "It is very likely that people of extreme views will play a big role in the future of Russia and will find support both among the army elite and among the many Russian nationalists who have been persecuted by Putin for the last 10 to 15 years and are now in prison. The future is murky and bleak either way: either the Putinists continue Putin's cause, or the anti-Putinists their extremist cause. Neither will bring Russia any closer to democracy."
Indeed, in his interview Thursday with Les Echos, opposition leader Ilya Ponomarev also voiced an idea that few talk about openly: Russians are counting on the Ukrainian army to free them from Putin. "Of course, we all have many hopes, but the real change will probably come only when the Ukrainians liberate Crimea," Ponomarev said. "The very fabric of Russian power will disintegrate. I doubt final change will happen before then."