Mark Galeotti Mark Galeotti

The terrifying neo-Nazi mercenaries being deployed in Ukraine

The Rusich badge

Given how the Kremlin is so determined to portray Ukraine as a hotbed of Nazis, it is tragically ironic not only that its own forces seem determined to recreate some of the horrors of the German invasion in the second world war, but also that it is so willing to use its own fascists in pursuit of its war.

The latest unit to hit the news is Rusich, a unit affiliated to the infamous mercenaries of Wagner Group. Its name simply means a member of the old Rus’ people, and speaks to its inchoate ideology, a mix of traditional Slavic (and Viking) paganism, Nazism, and extreme Russian nationalism.

Originally drawn largely from neo-Nazis out of the St Petersburg nationalist underground scene, in 2014 Rusich emerged as one of the ‘volunteer battalions’ in rebel-held parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Moscow neither created nor controlled Rusich, but nor did it do anything to prevent its emergence: the first months of the Donbas war were essentially ones in which the Russian government was happy to watch and see what happened.

Rusich seemed to revel in their impunity and their reputation for violence, mutilating and burning the bodies of the dead

By summer, the Kremlin was faced with a choice of letting Kyiv reassert its control over the rebel regions or involve itself directly, and it chose the latter course. As Russian troops started to appear in the Donbas, the thuggish array of local militias were increasingly forced to accept Moscow’s direct or indirect control. Some resisted – and a number of warlords ended up dying in ‘mysterious’ assassinations – but Rusich seems to have had no qualms in being incorporated as a deniable weapon of the Russian state.

They seemed to revel in their impunity and their reputation for violence, mutilating and burning the bodies of the dead and even putting videos of their atrocities online.

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