Violence-Oriented Right-Wing Extremist Actors in Russia: Club of Angry Patriots- Part 2

During the past decade and a half, extremist non-state actors in Russia have become a central element of the violent transnational right-wing extremist milieu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and particularly its re-invasion of the country in 2022 have afforded these actors far greater opportunities to operate and increase their influence than before. This blog is the eighth in a series in which CEP highlights some of the key actors, and analyzes their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.

The Club of Angry Patriots is a Russian extremist, nationalist social movement established on April 1, 2023 by prominent right-wing extremist figures Igor Strelkov, Pavel Gubarev, and Maxim Kalashnikov. The first of this two-part blog entry focuses on Ivan Vsevoldovich Girkin’s actions until Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This second part addresses his subsequent activities, including the club’s establishment, its membership and structure, and the club’s actions following Girkin’s arrest in July 2023.

After his dismissal as defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic by the Kremlin on August 14, 2014, Girkin (AKA “Strelkov”) left Ukraine for Russia and intensified his critique of the Russian government. Between 2014 and 2022, he largely disappeared from mainstream Russian media and his interviews were restricted to nationalist outlets. In an interview on November 6, 2014, Girkin stated that the existence of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LPR & DPR) was only benefiting the United States, as the self-proclaimed republics supposedly separate Russians and Ukrainians—whom he considers a single people. On January 3, 2015, Girkin criticized the killing of Alexander Bednov, an LPR commander, in an online opinion piece for the nationalist online Russian Spring portal, and encouraged volunteer fighters to follow suit and return to Russia. In another interview in the same year, he denied Ukrainian sovereignty and labelled the conflict a civil war in Russia.

In November 2014, the public movement Novorossiya (“New Russia”) was established and headed by Girkin. It was created to unite supporters for the establishment of a new Russian federal state of Novorossiya, consisting of territories from eastern Ukraine. According to Novorossiya’s online manifesto, it ultimately seeks the establishment of a centralized, Orthodox Christian triune of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. The movement was sanctioned by the US in December 2014 and by the EU in September 2020, but it remains active both on its website and VKontakte pages, releasing updates about Girkin’s arrest and his candidacy in the Russian presidential elections in 2024.

On January 25, 2016, Girkin created the January 25th Committee alongside other prominent Russian nationalists including Eduard Limonov, Egor Prosvirnin, Maksim Kalashnikov and Konstantin Krylov, with the aim of supporting separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Under Girkin’s leadership, it was later renamed the Russian National Movement in May 2016. It held its first congress on May 28, 2016, when Girkin announced his intention to reunite all the historic Russian lands into one superstate, and officially rejected Vladimir Putin’s regime. It also criticized Putin’s policy for being too weak and influenced by the West. In September 2022, Girkin called for the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to be executed by a firing squad, and also for Russia to deploy tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine to drive 20 million refugees to Europe.

It appears that Girkin attained his greatest popularity in Russia to date after Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He actively criticized Putin and Russia’s inefficient conduct of the war on his Telegram channel, which, as of December 29, 2023, has almost 900,000 subscribers. He gathered a large number of supporters in online Russian right-wing extremist circles, including the Freedom for Strelkov circle (managed by Girkin’s wife Miroslava Reginskaya) and the Russian Strelkov Movement.

Despite his past dismissal as Defence Minister of the DPR, and his growing online popularity as a veteran fighter, Girkin returned to Ukraine to fight. According to a message posted on Telegram by Girkin’s associate, Aleksandr Zhuchkovskiy, Girkin initially tried to enter Kherson through Crimea but was detained by Russian authorities on August 15, 2022. On October 15, 2022, it was confirmed by Girkin and his wife that he eventually managed to enter eastern Ukraine as a volunteer fighter. In December 2022, Girkin released a video on his Telegram channel in which he reported on the war and expressed his desire to reform and change Russian military leadership. Girkin’s experience in Ukraine in 2022 likely motivated him to form the Club of Angry Patriots.

On April 1, 2023, Girkin, met with Russian nationalists Pavel Gubarev, Vladimir Grubnik, Viktor Alksnis, Maxim Kalashnikov, Maxim Klimov, Mikhail Aksel and Yevgeny Mikhailov to officially establish the Club. None of these co-founders held government posts during the club’s foundation. To Girkin, this is possibly a point of pride, as in the past he boasted about refusing government posts in order to devote himself to the Russian National Movement. The club held its first press conference on May 12, 2023, in Moscow, and on May 21, 2023, it opened its branch in St Petersburg. Just like its predecessor organizations, the Novorossiya Movement, the January 25 Committee, and the Russian National Movement, the Club seeks to influence the Russian government, advocating for a more aggressive strategy to secure victory in Ukraine. This approach involves urging the Russian government to implement a total military mobilization and raising alarms about the threat of a potential pro-Western coup in Russia.

While the Club’s official website appears to be defunct, its VKontakte and Telegram pages remain operational, with approximately 20,000 subscribers on the latter. The Club’s activities seem to mainly consist of criticizing the Russian government online. However, on June 25, 2023, the Club held a live-streamed event in Moscow in which Girkin reiterated his critique of Putin’s conduct of the war, and called on Putin to delegate powers to other branches of the Russian military to secure a victory in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, the Club has not staged any official protests, at least until Girkin’s arrest in 2023. While the Club emphasizes in its public statements that it is trying to create a defense network to counter a potential coup in Russia by strengthening the pro-war faction within the Kremlin, it has so far abstained from armed activities. The actions of this defense network appear to be restricted to spreading extremist propaganda online and occasionally at various gatherings.

The Club also does not appear to have any direct ties with paramilitary organizations. Its membership does, however, include affiliates with the Other Russia, which has direct links to the Interbrigades paramilitary fighters in Ukraine. Other Russia has been allied with the Club and has organized meetings and press conferences for it, and has protested against Girkin’s arrest. The club also tries to collect donations on its Telegram channel to purchase fighting equipment for pro-Russian volunteer units such as the Sudoplatov Battalion.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, Girkin may have been benefiting from the patronage and protection of members of Russian power structures, including the Russian Security Federal Service (FSB). Indeed, according to reports from the Insider and Bellingcat, Girkin has been using various FSB-issued passports for travel even after his return to Russia in 2014. While Girkin, like other pro-war ultranationalists such as Boris Rozhin and German Kulikovsky, may have benefited from protection afforded to him by figures in the upper echelons of the Russian military and intelligence services, this did not protect him from getting arrested.

On July 18, 2023, Girkin directly criticized Putin on his Telegram channel, urging him to transfer the post of presidency to a more capable leader. He called Putin a mediocre leader, a coward, and accused him of not following through on promises to reunite eastern Ukraine with Russia. Three days later, Girkin was detained by the FSB on charges of online extremism. Girkin’s arrest may have motivated him to announce his candidacy for the post of president.

On November 19, 2023, Girkin announced his intention to run as a candidate in the 2024 Russian presidential election from jail. Girkin conveyed his intention to run for president in a letter sent from his pre-trial detention and read out by Oleg Nelzin, co-chairman of the Russian Strelkov Movement, in a press conference. In this letter Girkin instructed his supporters to establish a headquarters to collect signatures and called on various public and political organizations for civic support. On December 24, 2023, in the Izamilovo Hotel in Moscow, 556 Russian citizens came together to officially support the nomination of Girkin as a candidate for the presidency of Russia, and this nomination was subsequently submitted to Russia’s Central Election Commission. More Russians assembled in Moscow to support Girkin’s candidacy on the same day, but the Commission ultimately rejected Girkin’s candidacy based on his pre-trial status.

Following Girkin’s arrest, the club continues its online activities on Telegram and VKontakte, although it has not staged any protests. After the Commission’s rejection of his candidacy, Girkin released a Telegram post urging Russian civil society to keep campaigning for his cause. Furthermore, the Novorossiya Movement and various other Telegram and VKontakte channels continue to support Girkin online, advocating for his release and right to run for president.

Analysis of the Club of Angry Patriots demonstrates that its activities, just like those of its leader, are mainly focused on online agitation. Compared to other groups analyzed in this blog series, Igor Girkin and the nexus of organizations coalesced around him are the most vocal and popular ultranationalist critics of Putin and his conduct of the war in Ukraine. While the Club does not engage in direct military activity (according to Mikhail Aksel, one of the Club’s founders, it is primarily a platform for connecting Russian ultra-nationalists), its criticism may eventually incite more protests in Russia, especially as its 2024 elections draw near. This has the potential of destabilizing Putin’s rule, especially if Girkin’s ideology incites other right-wing extremist pro-Russian combatants fighting in Ukraine, such as the Interbrigades or Rusich.

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