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The war in Ukraine and future of Wagner group

Sep 5, 2023 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI.

The Russian Imperial Movement, the war in Ukraine and the future of Russian state

ICCT – Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, one of the actors that has been mentioned as being actively involved and playing a detrimental role in the conflict is the so-called Wagner Group – the private military company that has become the main force of the Russian government’s invasion and has recently been designated as transnational terrorists by the US and Europe. The Russian government has always denied this connection, preferring to keep the ties with the Wagner Group and its former leader Yevgeny Prigozhin (who died in a plane crash on August 23) on a non-official level providing it support and yet denying any direct connection. The situation has changed in June 2023, when Yevgeny Prigozhin ordered his troops to start moving towards Moscow, threatening to take over the capital if his demands for the resignation of Russian higher military command and defence minister were not met.

This initiative, even though it did not result in the change of regime, has had several outcomes. First, the Russian government formally confirmed its connection with the Wagner group. Second, the incident has clearly become a shock for Putin and his allies. Prigozhin and his personnel were let go without any punishment for what has been labelled as a coup attempt and an act of treason, which appears to be a rather untypical way for the regime to deal with its enemies. It is argued that this incident and the lack of resistance from Russian silovilki who are considered the foundation of the Putin’s regime, showed the president that his position is not quite as strong as he wanted to think.

While the Wagner group has become the first group that engaged in direct confrontation with the regime, it is not the only group that is unhappy with the Russian government and its way to conduct war in Ukraine. According to researchers from New America, there is strong evidence to suggest that Wagner group has connections with Russian far-right groups whose members fight alongside Wagner. One of these group is the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). They are one of so-called ultra-patriots – a loose conglomerate of extreme right-wing, nationalist and imperial groups that insist on conducting a more active and aggressive military campaign in Ukraine, including possible use of nuclear weapons. In this piece I discuss the role of RIM in the war against Ukraine and the group’s current and future relationship with the Russian government, particularly in the context of the Wagner group’s coup attempt in June 2023.

What is Russian Imperial Movement?

Created in 2002, the RIM initially remained obscure, gaining very little attention. Whilst promoting the idea of restoring monarchy in Russia, the group did not find a lot of support from the local population. However, things changed in 2014 with the onset of the conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk, and consequent Russian annexation of Crimea. The 2014 conflict was supported by the RIM who believe in the idea of seeing the revival of the Russian Empire. They believe that Ukraine is not an independent state but is part of Russia, and needs to be brought back. In 2014, the group created a military wing called Imperial Legion to fight in the conflict zone. It is argued that at least six members of RIM were killed during that conflict.

When the 2014 crisis in Ukraine entered a frozen stage, the RIM was extremely disappointed that the Russian government did not continue the campaign and did not annex Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which they perceived as betrayal of the cause.

The new stage of crisis development and its transformation into a full-fledged war was supported by the RIM. The group expressed their satisfaction with Putin’s decision to do what in their opinion was needed to be done a long time ago. Shortly after, the group started even more actively promoting the services of its training and as well as announced the revival of the Imperial Legion (which was inactive after the 2014 entered a frozen stage), calling volunteers to join or, if unable, to support their cause financially. To those without military experience, they promised to give training to prepare them for the battlefield.

As mentioned earlier, it appears that RIM is actively involved in the fighting in Ukraine together with Wagner. However, unlike Wagner’s fighters, the majority of whom are former prisoners, their members have both military experience and a strong motivation to participate in the war. In the light of the Wagner’s failed coup and the death of its leader, the question is how would these events affect RIM’s future and its relations with the Russian government?

RIM and the Russian government: rivals or allies?

The group presents itself to be in opposition to the current Russian government. Over years since the creation of its account in Russian social media VK, the group would make very negative comments regarding the ruling party and Vladimir Putin personally, blaming them for ruining the country.

The Russian government, unlike the US and Canada which have designated RIM as a terrorist group in 2021, does not see it as such and argued that the act of designation was purely political. However, RIM’s leader Stanislav Vorobyev, to whom I spoke with in summer 2021, argued that the government would still treat RIM as a threat. For example, its headquarters would regularly be visited by FSB agents, its website would be taken down as extremist material, and criminal cases would be opened against its prominent members such as Dina Garina.

In this context, it does not seem like RIM and the government may have any potential for amicable relations. Moreover, the group’s frustration grew even more after Putin did not engage in a full-scale confrontation with the Ukrainian government in 2014. With the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2022, one might assume that RIM has changed its view on the Russian government. Partially, this is true – as mentioned, RIM expressed their deep satisfaction with the decision of the Russian government to finally take our land back.

One might also notice that there is much less criticism expressed regarding Russian domestic politics than before. Nevertheless, on their website, the RIM continues to express their dissatisfaction with what they see as an approach which is too soft being taken by the Russian government, where they call for active measures and complete takeover of Ukraine. Moreover, the RIM even started calling Ukraine (Украина in Russian) Окраина. This is a reference to one of the etymological theories, arguing that the word Ukraine derived from the word “okraina” meaning “in the outskirts”.

In the current political climate in Russia, expressing criticism of the government is dangerous, but it seems RIM is not touched by any of the new repressive laws (e.g., the law about the “discreditation of the Russian army” that essentially puts anyone criticizing the war – or even calling it “the war” and not “special adopted with the beginning of the war). The reason for this may be that the connection between RIM and the Russian government is beyond seeming mutual dislike.

In winter 2022/2023, there were a series of incidents in Spain, where a number of its officials as well as Ukrainian and US embassies received packages with bombs. Later it was discovered that the bombs were made and sent by a 74-year-old individual. However, according to New York Times investigation based on interviews with Spanish investigators and US officials, it is believed that the attacks could have been orchestrated by the RIM, that has strong connections with far-right movements in Spain and all over Europe. Moreover, Fiona Hill, a senior director for Europe and Russia on the White House National Security Council in the Trump administration said that the similarity between the attacks in Spain and other attacks across Europe confirmed to be orchestrated by GRU suggest that RIM acted upon instructions and guidance from the agency . The purpose of this campaign was clear – it was to intimidate Europe and send the message that its support for Ukraine is going to have consequences.

This incident appears to be the continuation of the Russian government’s adopted strategy in Europe. It tended to utilise local movements, for example, by financing far-right groups’ election campaigns to build a support base for its ideology on the European continent, and at the same time create an opposition to democratic government. When it comes to groups like RIM, which is based in Russia, the government lets them exist (i.e., group members are not arrested, and the group’s activities are not suspended) on its territory in exchange for using them as proxies abroad. The benefit of it, according to Fiona Hill is to “create plausible deniability” for covert operations. This link between the government and extreme far-right is rather ironic, as one of the official justifications for the war in Ukraine is its “denazification”.

Designation of the group as terrorist, however, creates clear obstacles to its effective operation abroad. RIM’s assets were frozen and its members and, or sympathisers living abroad were subjected to more scrutiny from European and American security forces and their ability to travel restricted. This makes it increasingly difficult to operate, and under these circumstances, RIM may soon lose its usefulness for the Russian government and as a consequence – its guarantee of security.

RIM and the Russian government: future relationship

It seems that the group does realise that it may eventually lose its usefulness for the government. In an interview, one RIM members, who is also fighting in Ukraine, commented on the relations between the Russian government and various groups on the battlefield such as the Wagner Group and a neo-Nazi group called Rusich. He said that those who fight there understand that they are only going to be necessary while the war is ongoing and once it is finished, it is likely that they all will just be ‘thrown away” like it happened previously with soldiers fighting in Chechnya or Afghanistan. He then said that this means that the fighters need to unite, cooperate and take care of their future now to make sure that they are “not get rid of later”. It was unclear, what exactly he meant. However, the events of June 2023, give this comment a new twist.

According to Russia analyst, Jade McGlynn this scenario was feared by the Russian government even before the Wagner group’s attempted coup. She cited one of the Russian MPs, Oleg Matveychev who in February 2023 expressed his concerns regarding a possibility of a coup. He said the following, “The situation is not so critical yet, but 2023 will be very dangerous.” Ultra-patriots are “the only danger to our state.” Matveychev predicts that these groups may join effort and propose their own candidate for Russian election 2024. As usual, there will be falsification of the elections results, he argues, which may encourage the groups to react in a more violent way. This can lead to the repetition of the Maidan scenario which should it be supported by Russian military and security chiefs may end up in overthrowing Putin’s rule.

After the coup attempt, RIM posted several comments on its social media clarifying its position on the matter. The group emphasised that in this conflict they do not support either Putin or Prigozhin. They believe that Prigozhin, should he gain power, would be just another version of Putin, and would not present a good alternative for Russia. RIM is convinced that these events are indeed just a beginning of further attacks on the regime. Since June, RIM posted comments regarding potential cooperation with other far-right groups, for example, the Club of Angry Patriots – a non-military group of nationalist Russian politicians who advocate for a more hard-line approach in Ukraine. The group denied any prospects of cooperation with the “club seeing them as leftists. However, it welcomed collaboration with groups that share their ideology of Orthodox Christianity paired with right-wing views.

It is unlikely that RIM, despite its public statements will attempt to take any active steps to openly challenge the Russian government on its own, especially after the news about the death of the Wagner Group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin – which would likely be considered a warning for any other actors wishing to openly challenge the regime. In addition, the percentage of pro-monarchists in Russia is very low (only 3%). In addition, its anti-Soviet, anti-Communist rhetoric is likely to turn away the older population, who could share some of the group’s views but is generally nostalgic about the USSR.

This makes its potential popular support base in case of a military coup rather small. However, the fact that RIM is now talking about possible collaboration with other domestic groups does signal a rise in their hopes to gain a share of power should another coalition of anti-Putin and pro-war forces emerge. Granted its members’ solid military experience, they are likely to get this promise in an exchange for participation in a coup. It could also happen should the Russian government decide to stop using RIM as a proxy and deprive the group of its perceived immunity. Thus, in one of the group’s latest posts it informed its subscribers that one of their members was arrested for organising a public lecture about the Wagner’s coup attempt without an official authorisation.

Until then, the group is likely to remain focused on its military campaign in Ukraine. On the one hand, this is a key part of its ideology and represents an almost sacred mission for the members. On the other hand, RIM’s active role in the offensive would serve as a good bargaining point between them, other far-right groups and the Russian government itself.

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