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Ultra-patriots are Putin’s greatest threat They want to see Ukraine vanquished

Igor Girkin isn't afraid of Putin. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.

Igor Girkin isn't afraid of Putin. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.


February 27, 2023   4 mins

The biggest threat facing Putin today is not from Western-sympathising, anti-war liberals, but Right-wing “ultra-patriots” frustrated by the Russian army’s failures in Ukraine. Earlier this month, the Russian MP Oleg Matveychev warned of a potential coup: “The situation is not so critical yet, but 2023 will be very dangerous.” Turbo-patriots are now “the only danger to our state,” he said.

These dire premonitions are exaggerated but, with Alexei Navalny in prison, and many liberals in exile, disillusioned patriots are the only opposition force left in town. They include ordinary Russians, who are furious with the elites for profiting from the fighting, while buying and schmoozing their way out of military service. But that doesn’t translate into a desire to end the fighting: the ultra-patriots want Russia to be victorious over Ukraine and the West, even if it means waging war harder, faster, and more effectively.

These “turbo-patriots” don’t form a coherent political group. Rather, they are an unholy combination of ethno-nationalists, opportunistic military bloggers, imperial romantics, volunteer groups and neo-Nazis. What they all share is a militaristic nationalism, distrust of the West and of liberalism more broadly, patriarchal values, and a strong desire to see Russia win over its enemies.

One of the best-known turbo-patriots is Igor Girkin, 52, who never misses an opportunity to denounce Putin’s handling of the war. A former FSB officer, Girkin is backed by the imperialist Orthodox billionaire and coup-plotter extraordinaire, Konstantin Malofeev. He played a pivotal role in sparking the 2014 conflict in Donbas, but was recalled to Moscow after the downing of flight MH17 and the deaths of its 298 passengers, for which a Dutch court found him guilty in absentia in 2022.

Girkin mockingly refers to Putin as “Our Sacred Geogalactic-brained Strategist” and has accused Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu of “criminal negligence”. While it’s clear Putin is also unhappy with his generals, ultra-patriots like Girkin believe his constant interference with military strategy is only making the situation worse. The Russian President is micromanaging from afar, causing delays in the already-stilted army communications networks. By shuffling commanders around, he is heightening confusion while further depressing the troops.

The Kremlin has gone to great lengths to undermine Girkin’s appeal: preventing him from travelling to the frontline to fight, and setting Putin’s attack dog Yevgeny Prigozhin, the 61-year-old head of the Wagner Group, against him. Prigozhin, like Girkin, also belongs to the disparate band of ultra-patriots; this week, he accused Shoigu and his most senior general of treason for withholding ammunition and supplies from Wagner fighters. The difference is that Prigozhin is unflinchingly loyal to Putin.

The most extreme ultra-patriots come from Right-wing Neo-Nazi groups, who despise the ethnic minorities that are over-represented in the regular Russian army. Their popularity is limited in Russia, where ethnic nationalism has traditionally been viewed with suspicion. With 190 different ethnic groups, Russia is too diverse for any ruler to use ethnicity as a rallying cry, for which reason managing ethno-nationalism has long been a political priority for Putin. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a latent audience for many of their ultra-Right-wing ideals.

The Neo-Nazis may lack supporters, but the xenophobic ideas they propagate echo the prejudices of many Russians who are hostile to dark-skinned people from the north Caucasus and former Soviet Union. The statement “Russia — for ethnic Russians” has reached its highest level of approval since polling began more than 30 years ago, with some 55% of Russians now agreeing with it. This speaks more to a stubborn everyday racism than to ideological commitment, but it lays the groundwork for a more sophisticated patriotic narrative to take hold.

Few ultra-patriots are Neo-Nazis; most are far less radical. Patriotic volunteer groups have sprung up in response to the army’s woeful lack of equipment and food, reflecting a new lease of life for the otherwise moribund Russian civil society. This grassroots movement contrasts sharply with the corruption of Russia’s elites, which has become a matter of life and death, with soldiers’ equipment being stolen or going missing. One recent scandal, covered generously in the nationalist-leaning media, concerned a company belonging to the son of a prominent official, which was selling the army uniforms at inflated profits and pocketing the difference.

Roman Yuneman, 27, is the founder of an influential volunteer movement called Society.Future. Born in Germany, he has criticised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but still wants the Russian Army to win, adopting a “my country right or wrong” stance that resonates widely with Russian society. To spread his message, he has led humanitarian missions to Mariupol and Severodonetsk. He is using Society.Future to raise funds for war-stricken civilians, but also as a political launchpad, touring the country to share his views on the problems blighting Russia’s future.

One prominent member of Society.Future is Nikolai Kolosov, a former Donbas fighter turned political activist. In a widely watched debate, he won an argument against Vladislav Ugol’ny, a blogger who has called for the biological destruction of the Ukrainian nation. Kolosov, by contrast, dismissed the conquest of Ukraine as an impossible dream that the Russian people don’t want, and the Russian army isn’t capable of. His victory shows that the most popular ultra-patriots aren’t the most radical, but the most realistic: though Kolosov supports his country, he believes that the Kremlin should stop the war, reinforce the occupation of Donbas, and spend the money and resources on solving the many problems facing ethnic Russians at home.

Another prominent pro-war civil activist, Anastasiya Kashevarova, is similarly critical of the Kremlin’s decisions. Kashevarova helps women and mothers to find their missing husbands and sons, arranging prisoner exchanges and hunting down information about loved ones. Her activism is not political so much as a patriotic act, and therein lies its appeal.

There is, however, a dark side to this community patriotism: not everyone is welcome. On Telegram, Society.Future’s leaders are disparaging of Russia’s Muslim-majority North Caucasus regions, especially Chechnya and the Putin-loyalist head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. They openly balk at Muslim battalions like Akhmat attacking Slavic Ukrainians and complain that Chechens enjoy privileged treatment in Russia.

For now, the Kremlin tolerates these wrong-thinking volunteer groups because they help to fill woeful gaps in the army’s resources. But perhaps it is foolish to. While Matveichev’s claims of a coup are wildly exaggerated, there’s no doubt this new wave of patriotic groups poses a significant threat to the multinational fabric of Russian society and to the Kremlin’s monopoly on patriotism.

The West tends to overstate the importance of Russia’s liberal opposition. The probability is that, when the Putin regime eventually falls, ordinary Russians will not turn to exiled liberals in Vilnius. Rather, they will look to those ultra-patriots that stayed around, supported them, and — in their eyes — saved Russians from further suffering.


Jade McGlynn is a Russia analyst. Her book Russia’s War will be published by Polity on 17 March.

DrJadeMcGlynn

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

And Biden wants regime change. It’s nothing more than wishful thinking to believe the demise of Putin will usher in a golden era of democracy in Russia.

Chris W
CW
Chris W
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Not democracy for sure. I’m not even sure I’d even want Biden’s idea of democracy. But Putin can’t change direction. New people can at least change something without losing face.

Andy E
AE
Andy E
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

“New people” idea gives me shivers. Mr Putin is moderate compared to Mr Evil (oops, Dr Evil). At least he does not want to take over the world, like for example, Mr Trotsky or Mr H. did. The next guy might go for it. Be careful about your wishes.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy E

Take your point but then every comment becomes a flat negative. I am seeing plenty of negatives but no ideas.

Richard Craven
RC
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy E

Well said, in connection with which try googling Nikolai Patrushev if you want to make your flesh creep.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy E

Take your point but then every comment becomes a flat negative. I am seeing plenty of negatives but no ideas.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy E

Well said, in connection with which try googling Nikolai Patrushev if you want to make your flesh creep.

Andy E
Andy E
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

“New people” idea gives me shivers. Mr Putin is moderate compared to Mr Evil (oops, Dr Evil). At least he does not want to take over the world, like for example, Mr Trotsky or Mr H. did. The next guy might go for it. Be careful about your wishes.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

And Putin wants regime change. It’s nothing more than wishful thinking to believe the demise of Biden will usher in a golden era of democracy in America.

Chris W
CW
Chris W
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Not democracy for sure. I’m not even sure I’d even want Biden’s idea of democracy. But Putin can’t change direction. New people can at least change something without losing face.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

And Putin wants regime change. It’s nothing more than wishful thinking to believe the demise of Biden will usher in a golden era of democracy in America.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

And Biden wants regime change. It’s nothing more than wishful thinking to believe the demise of Putin will usher in a golden era of democracy in Russia.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
1 year ago

As with any Real Russian (just a new iteration of the old “Soviet Man”), people like Putin, Prigozhin and Girkin fear and despise one another.
Their character was fixed centuries ago, in the time of Ivan the Dread: they grudgingly serve those above–and hate and abuse anyone below. They only refrain from killing one another now because of an all-powerful, “infallible” leader.
But when Putin goes, Russia turns into a barrel-full of starving rats.
Just how many in that unhappy land will then survive is anyone’s guess.

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Starving rats with nukes. A nightmare no sane mind could conjure.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Ray Zacek

So is Putin our one and only Saviour?
And any disloyalty on our part is impermissible?

Martin Logan
ML
Martin Logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Ray Zacek

So is Putin our one and only Saviour?
And any disloyalty on our part is impermissible?

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

There’s a not an entirely self-interested reason why the West has often propped up dictators: the best of a bad bunch.

After all, in the West’s finest hour, the largest mass murderer in modern history was our ally and despite a nuclear balance entirely in its favour, the West chose to let him keep the country he had invaded alongside the Nazis that was the trigger for WW2.

Ray Zacek
RZ
Ray Zacek
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Starving rats with nukes. A nightmare no sane mind could conjure.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

There’s a not an entirely self-interested reason why the West has often propped up dictators: the best of a bad bunch.

After all, in the West’s finest hour, the largest mass murderer in modern history was our ally and despite a nuclear balance entirely in its favour, the West chose to let him keep the country he had invaded alongside the Nazis that was the trigger for WW2.

Martin Logan
ML
Martin Logan
1 year ago

As with any Real Russian (just a new iteration of the old “Soviet Man”), people like Putin, Prigozhin and Girkin fear and despise one another.
Their character was fixed centuries ago, in the time of Ivan the Dread: they grudgingly serve those above–and hate and abuse anyone below. They only refrain from killing one another now because of an all-powerful, “infallible” leader.
But when Putin goes, Russia turns into a barrel-full of starving rats.
Just how many in that unhappy land will then survive is anyone’s guess.

Andy E
Andy E
1 year ago

“they will look to those ultra-patriots that stayed around”
Exactly. Mr Putin’s approval is 80% but the disapproving 20% are not necessarily come from pro-Western. Some percentage can be from those who think he is too soft.

Andy E
Andy E
1 year ago

“they will look to those ultra-patriots that stayed around”
Exactly. Mr Putin’s approval is 80% but the disapproving 20% are not necessarily come from pro-Western. Some percentage can be from those who think he is too soft.

Lisa I
Lisa I
1 year ago

The adoption of liberalism and democracy in the 90’s coincided with economic collapse and lawlessness. Unfortunately that’s led to russian disdain for them.
It could be a couple of generations before they join the rest of Europe (politically).

Last edited 1 year ago by Lisa I
Lisa I
Lisa I
1 year ago

The adoption of liberalism and democracy in the 90’s coincided with economic collapse and lawlessness. Unfortunately that’s led to russian disdain for them.
It could be a couple of generations before they join the rest of Europe (politically).

Last edited 1 year ago by Lisa I
Martin Logan
Martin Logan
1 year ago

Relax.
This will be a re-run of 1917. It will all be domestic. Don’t flatter yourself that anyone in the West will be uppermost in the mind of any Russian.
Even the Bolsheviks’ desire for world revolution went on hold while they battled their various enemies. During Civil Wars, the very last thing any of the combatants thinks of is picking a fight with foreigners.
They hate one another far too much.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Foch should have left Hoffmann to finish the job.
It wouldn’t have taken much.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Foch should have left Hoffmann to finish the job.
It wouldn’t have taken much.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
1 year ago

Relax.
This will be a re-run of 1917. It will all be domestic. Don’t flatter yourself that anyone in the West will be uppermost in the mind of any Russian.
Even the Bolsheviks’ desire for world revolution went on hold while they battled their various enemies. During Civil Wars, the very last thing any of the combatants thinks of is picking a fight with foreigners.
They hate one another far too much.