Neo-Nazi Russian militia appeals for intelligence on Nato member states

Move by Task Force Rusich raises fears of rogue paramilitary attacks on Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia

A neo-Nazi paramilitary group linked to the Kremlin has asked its members to submit intelligence on border and military activity in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, raising concerns over whether far-right Russian groups are planning an attack on Nato countries.

The official Telegram channel for “Task Force Rusich” – currently fighting in Ukraine on behalf of the Kremlin and linked to the notorious Wagner Group – last week requested members to forward details relating to border posts and military movements in the three Baltic states, which were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

The news has prompted questions over who has overall command over the far-right pro-Kremlin groups fighting in Ukraine.

Rusich is closely aligned to the Wagner Group, a military outfit run by a close ally of Vladimir Putin and now leading the Russian offensive to capture the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, currently the most fiercely contested battle of the conflict.

Sources speaking on condition of anonymity said the “extraordinary” move by Rusich could point to disenchantment with the Kremlin and frustration with how Putin’s war in Ukraine is going.

They added that the Kremlin could lose control of its far-right Russian paramilitary organisations, which may exploit more extreme methods to pursue the Ukrainian war, raising fears of escalation if a Nato state were attacked.

However, sources added it was unlikely that the Kremlin was directly involved because its espionage service would undoubtedly already have intelligence on military and border activity in the Baltic states.

The source said: “Does it indicate fragmentation within the Russian system? What happens if the Russians lose control of them [the paramilitary groups] and they start committing rogue actions that could accidentally escalate the situation? The real question is: how much control does the Kremlin really have?”

Vladimir Putin seated onstage
Vladimir Putin: sources say the Kremlin is unlikely to be behind the militia’s appeal, as it would already have the intelligence that is being requested. Photograph: Pavel Bednyakov/AP

Recent reports indicate that some paramilitary groups such as the Wagner Group, founded by the powerful Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, already have considerable autonomy and as much access to Putin as formal government officials.

Although interactions between Rusich and Wagner Group-affiliated online channels have been documented recently, it remains unclear to what extent the group operates with strategic oversight from Wagner or even the Russian defence ministry.

Rusich promotes itself as a sabotage and reconnaissance force, though its frequent crowdfunding efforts suggest it is not effectively supported by Russian logistical operations.

Last Wednesday, the operators of Rusich’s official Russian-language channel on Telegram published a post requesting users in Baltic countries to anonymously share information relating to military and associated infrastructure.

The post, viewed by more than 60,000 users, called for information relating to military units, with specific references to member data and occupations, relatives of members and their personal transport. It also asked for details of patrol movements, and for the locations of border posts, surveillance systems and vehicles.

Details of communication towers and security apparatus on the border, as well as the coordinates of fuel depots and security systems in border areas, were similarly requested.

Rusich’s fighters, notorious for their brutality in Syria and the 2014 war in Crimea, have been spotted via open-source intelligence in Ukraine’s Donbas and Kharkiv regions, and in Kherson.

The US treasury department announced in September that it was imposing sanctions against Rusich.

Recent reports indicate the Biden administration is now considering designating the Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organisation. The group was widely condemned after it posted a gruesome video of the execution with a sledgehammer of a former recruit who defected to Ukraine but was apparently recaptured by the group.

Contributor

Mark Townsend Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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