Ukraine embraces far-right Russian ‘bad guy’ to take the battle to Putin

Germany describes Denis Kapustin as a top neo-Nazi, and his role in the war is a double-edged sword for Kyiv.

KYIV —“We’re the bad guys but fighting really evil guys,” wisecracks Denis Kapustin.

For now, Ukraine is willing to embrace his form of bad guy. As a Russian militant who led eye-catching paramilitary raids into Russia from Ukrainian territory this year and last, Kyiv sees Kapustin has a role to play as an ally against President Vladimir Putin.

But there are hazards in holding him too close. German authorities say Kapustin — sometimes known as Denis Nikitin — is “one of the most influential neo-Nazi activists” on the European continent, and that’s a godsend to Russian propagandists, who are seeking to whitewash their murderous invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to “de-Nazify” Kyiv.

“Think of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,’” adds Kapustin, who leads the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), the largest of three anti-Kremlin Russian militias fighting for Ukraine. “Before, you just had good guys and bad guys dressed in black in cowboy movies, and then Clint Eastwood comes along and he’s dressed in black and fighting for good,” he says.

Kapustin is indeed dressed in black for his discussion with POLITICO in a downtown Kyiv hotel — though his clothing is free of any neo-Nazi logos or flashes. That’s despite the fact he runs a far-right apparel line of T-shirts and caps emblazoned with white nationalist and xenophobic imagery as well as the Nazi symbol 88 — the eighth letter of the alphabet twice being a not-so-subtle code for “Heil Hitler.”

“I walk a thin line,” Kapustin says, disputing the neo-Nazi label and noting, almost teasingly, that he doesn’t put swastikas on any of the T-shirts he flogs, as though that proves anything.

Russian state media relish pointing to Kapustin’s origins as a far-right football hooligan as it bolsters their pretext for the war.

Moscow’s continual attempt to cast their struggle as a rerun of World War II against Nazism rings hollow in reality, however. Not only is Ukraine’s president Jewish but far-right extremist parties have near negligible support in national representative politics.

If that weren’t enough, Moscow’s insistence that Ukraine’s forces are Nazis overlooks the fact that avowed neo-Nazi groups are fighting for Russia too. Including the notorious Rusich militia, which happily displays Nazi flashes, advocates racist ideology and has been accused of battlefield atrocities in Ukraine and Syria, and the white supremacist Russian Imperial Movement, designated a “terrorist organization” by the United States.

In 2022, Germany’s BND intelligence service said the Russian military has welcomed neo-Nazi groups in its ranks, rendering “the alleged reason for the war, the so-called de-Nazification of Ukraine, absurd.”

Yet, none of that stops the Russians ignoring Nazis in their own ranks and focusing on Kapustin, who goes by the nom de guerre “White Rex,” just like his clothing label.

Kapustin’s RVC and two other Ukraine-based anti-Putin paramilitary groups — Freedom of Russia Legion and the newest formation, the Siberian Battalion — are in the news again after launching on March 12 their biggest cross-border raids of the war around Kursk and Belgorod, remaining on Russian soil and fighting for more than two weeks. Prior to that, their biggest raid was in May 2023, when they stormed villages and towns in the Belgorod region.

Alexei Baranovsky of the Freedom of Russia Legion claimed at a press conference last week that the latest raids “disrupted the plans of the Russian army and caused significant damage to it.”

Militias’ murky status

The status of these militia groupings in relation to Ukraine’s armed forces is murky.

Baranovsky claims his group is “a regular unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” telling POLITICO at last week’s press conference: “When we are on the territory of Ukraine — we are servicemen of the Ukrainian army, equal in all rights and duties to all other servicemen of Ukraine. When we go to the territory of Russia — we are no longer Ukrainian servicemen, we are Russian citizens who have taken up arms.”

Some in Ukraine’s regular army frown on the tie-up between the militias (especially the RVC) and Ukraine’s military intelligence (HUR), arguing it offers the Russians a propaganda opportunity.

“And for what?” asked an official who sits on Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council but who asked not to be named in this article to be able to speak freely. “These militias are a sideshow. They can’t influence the war’s dynamics. Maybe they disrupt a bit behind the lines and are embarrassing for the Kremlin but that doesn’t outweigh the overall propaganda disadvantages of using them,” the official added.

The whole enterprise is a pet project of Kyrylo Budanov, the head of HUR. As the cross-border raids unfolded last month, Budanov praised the Russian paramilitaries as “good warriors” on a national newscast. “They’ve been helping us since the first day … They have fought in many of Ukraine’s hottest spots. We’re going to try and help them as much as we can,” he said.

As far as HUR sees it, their enemy’s enemy is their friend. According to Andriy Yusov, a HUR spokesman: “Ukraine should obviously also assist those Russians who are fighting against the Putin regime to free Russia.” He said the militias don’t act in Russia on the direct orders of Kyiv, and their actions just go to show “the Kremlin is once again not in control of the situation in Russia.”

Maybe so, but it depends on how you define “under orders.”

Kapustin says the militias have freedom of action once across the border but the raids are closely coordinated with the HUR, which provides logistical assistance, vets their operational plans and arms and pays them. All three militias are formally part of the Ukrainian armed forces, enlisted in the International Legion, says Kapustin. “We are an official part of Ukrainian army but we have serious political ambitions and political agenda — to get rid of Putin,” he adds.

From football fields to the battlefield

The 40-year-old Kapustin was born in Moscow. He moved with his parents at the age of 17 to Cologne, Germany, where he quickly established a fearsome reputation as a street-brawling white-power skinhead always up for a punch-up with everyone, especially Antifa activists. He tells POLITICO he was unhappy with the move and missed his friends and felt disconnected.

He’s long been prominent on the European football hooliganism and far-right martial arts fight club scene — participating in the riots at the UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament in the French port city of Marseille. After he moved to Kyiv, Germany canceled his residency in 2019 and imposed a Schengen-entry ban on him for “efforts against the liberal democratic constitution.”

He has links with American neo-Nazi groups, and in 2021 co-hosted a podcast with Robert Rundo, founder of the Rise Above Movement, which participated in the Charlottesville white supremacist rally.

Nonetheless, Kapustin bristles at being called a neo-Nazi himself, even though he is hazy about what he is. He relishes sparring with Western journalists, seeing how awkward many of them feel interviewing him, torn between disapproval of his far-right ideology and hooligan history and their sympathy for Ukraine, not wanting to put the county in a bad light for Western liberal audiences.

“Will you try to remain unbiased?” he asks. “It is a very funny position for you and your colleagues because you all have been trying hard to put us in a bad light for years. Neo-Nazis, racist, white supremacists, terrible guys, blah, blah, blah. And then the darkest hour in Ukraine’s modern day history arrives. And all of a sudden the eternal bad guys turn out to be brave, courageous, determined, stubborn and heroes. And they’re like, ‘damn, how should I write about them?’”

Kapustin thoroughly savors his notoriety. “Throughout my life, I always wanted to be the Hollywood-style bad guy. Darth Vader is my ultimate inspiration. At the age of seven, I watched Star Wars, and was like, ‘wow this guy’s so cool,’” he says.

So if he’s not a neo-Nazi, what is he?

“Definitely conservative, definitely traditionalist, definitely right wing-ish,” he says.

“It’s easier for me to say what I detest, oppose in the modern world than to name my personal political views,” he adds. “I consider myself a big part of the right-wing movement. But when we say right-wing movement, what does that mean? Would that mean me agitating for beating up immigrants or things like that? No, I’m a grown up person. And if I had my time as a youngster fighting with immigrants on the street, that time is long gone. We were thinking the immigrant is the enemy. This is not the problem. The problem is Putin’s government,” he adds.

Above all, he says, he’s a Russian nationalist, hence fighting for Ukraine because Russian nationalists should be against Putin. “Being a patriot, being a nationalist, obviously means wishing the best for your own people, for your own kids, for your country. But I know exactly that Putin is the worst that could happen to Russia. So that’s why guys, my former comrades, who are fighting for him, and they consider themselves nationalist, they’re the worst enemy for me. They consider me a traitor. I consider them traitors,” he explains.

For Kapustin, Putin’s regime is not nationalistic enough. He complains: “You can have a French National Football Association in Russia … But you can never have a truly Russian one. Whenever you say, I want to start a Russian national club for something you get told, ‘Your grandfather was fighting against Nazis and now you are a neo-Nazi!'”

On a trip to South Africa, Kapustin claims he found that most people thought life was better under Apartheid — though he admits he didn’t speak to Black South Africans.

“My trip to South Africa was very significant for me because I realized what it used to be and what it is now, this decay, it’s obviously very pity to see that.” He concedes, “I didn’t talk to the Blacks. So I’m being open. I was just saying how it was.”

Kapustin started the RVC with just five members. Like the commanders of the other two Ukrainian-based Russian militias, the Freedom of Russia Legion and Siberian Battalion, he won’t say how many fighters he has now, though Russia last month said more than 2,000 fighters were involved in the raids in Kursk and Belgorod.

“We are an official part of Ukrainian army but we have serious political ambitions and political agenda — to march to Moscow and dismantle the Putin regime. That is obviously in the interests of Ukraine,” Kapustin says. He doesn’t explain what system of government he would like to see in Russia.

“We are now definitely a sizable force, possessing our own arms and vehicles, possessing our own mortars, heavy machine guns and artillery. RVC is not anymore a gang. It is a regiment. We have bases. We have our recruitment system,” Kapustin says.

The original core of the RVC comprised Russians already living in Ukraine before Putin launched his full-scale invasion in February 2022. Kapustin says most recruits now are Russians who travel through Georgia to enlist. “They’re not Russian army defectors on the whole,” he says.

He says the three militias have different political stances. “And because of that we do have different approaches to recruitment, to how we run our units. We have lectures in ideology in my corps, not just military craft, not just physical education, because from my point of view ideology is something that fortifies a unit,” he says.

“One of your colleagues tried to corner me recently and asked if we would take a Black, or homosexual or transgender who wanted to join the corps. And I said: ‘No, because he wouldn’t feel comfortable around us, and we would not feel comfortable around him.’”