Russian football hooligans trying to overthrow Putin as Russia heads to polls

High-profile attacks led by exiled militias on Russian soil can be seen as “a symptom of everything which is wrong” with the country, a UK-based academic has said.

Nevertheless, Professor Michael Clarke also warned the activities of groups such as the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) and Freedom for Russia also present a significant headache for Kyiv and the West.

The two groups have clashed with Russian soldiers in Belgorod and Kursk, both of which are located within 100 miles of the border with Ukraine, in recent days.

In a statement issued on the RVC’s website on Thursday, leader and founder Denis Nikitin, also known as Denis Kapustin, said: “Your leadership has taken no measures for your protection or evacuation, while attacks on peaceful towns and villages in Ukraine continue unabated.

“We are forced to open fire in response upon military targets in border regions. Evacuate immediately.”

However, Prof Clarke, a visiting professor of Defence Studies at Kings College London, warned it would be a mistake to think of such organisations, with their far-right ideologies and links to football hooliganism, as idealistic champions of liberal democracy.

He explained: “There’s no question in my mind that these groups are Russians, they’re not Ukrainian and they have their own agenda, which is to bring Putin down.

“But these people are not liberals. They want to bring Putin down, but it’s not as if they’re fighters for Navalny style reformers in Russia.”

Many were neo-Nazis, Mr Clarke stressed. He said: “The neo-Nazi fringes both in western and eastern Europe ‘shade’ into soccer hooliganism.

“Some of them have done time in prison for hooliganism and some political crimes as well.

“Most of them are Russian nationals who have taken refuge in Ukraine and a lot of them are moving around to escape arrest or prison sentences, with an arrest warrant following them from somewhere.

“One way of dealing with that is to play the role of freedom fighters, which kind of makes their crimes sound political, as opposed to just criminal.”

Consequently, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky had been careful to keep the RVC and others “at arms’ length”, Prof Clarke pointed out.

Despite this, it was widely believed that they and others were getting help unofficially from the GUR, Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence, whose director, Kyrylo Budanov, has voiced “some satisfaction” at the chaos they had caused, Prof Clarke pointed out.

He said: “The line for the West is that it shows Russia is a febrile state. It shows the brittle nature of Russian control and is a symptom of so much that is wrong in Russia.

“And it comes down to the fact that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’.”

The attacks themselves had zero chance of toppling Putin’s regime, Prof Clarke said.

However, he continued: “Putin claims that under his strong leadership, Russia is safe and secure, prosperous.

“But these events add to this whole narrative that actually Putin is making Russia less safe, less prosperous, and the war is beginning to hurt the Russians in ways they never expected.”

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