‘We have ambitious plans’: Anti-Putin forces plan fresh attacks inside Russia

Leader of cross-border raids from Ukraine says weapons, not words, are needed to overthrow the regime in Moscow

The commander of the Freedom of Russia Legion says his fighters are planning another cross-border raid into Russia and are seeking to capitalise on disarray inside the Kremlin following the mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin.

“There will be a further surprise in the next month or so,” Caesar, a spokesperson for the anti-Putin paramilitary group, said in an interview with the Observer in Kyiv. “It will be our third operation. After that there will be a fourth, and fifth. We have ambitious plans. We want to free all our territory.”

The legion, consisting of a few hundred Russian military volunteers, carried out attacks in May and early June. It occupied border villages near the Russian city of Belgorod, skirmished with the Russian army, and took 10 Russian soldiers captive. Two members of the anti-Kremlin militia were killed, Caesar said.

He described the recent incursion near the town of Shebekino as a “local raid and reconnaissance operation”. Caesar, who moved to Ukraine when Moscow’s full-scale invasion began, said he packed his Russian passport. “The border guards ran away. There was no one to show it to,” he joked.

A former fitness coach from Sochi and St Petersburg, Caesar’s real name is Maximillian Andronnikov. Critics have ridiculed the legion as a tinpot PR project run by Ukraine’s capable military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov. Russian state media has dubbed the 49-year-old Caesar an extremist and a Nazi. Prosecutors have charged him with crimes including treason to the motherland.

He acknowledged his militia could only function with Ukrainian military help but said once on Russian territory they made their own independent decisions. The legion’s armoured vehicles were mostly seized from Russian stocks captured in Ukraine, he said. He added that Kremlin reports of heavy losses among his guerrillas were ridiculous and exaggerated, asserting: “They dressed up dead bodies in Ukrainian uniforms and put them on TV. Ours look different. It was all a dumb lie.”

There have been accusations that the legion and another paramilitary force operating in Ukraine, the Russian Volunteer Corps, have connections with far-right organisations. Caesar was previously a member of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), an ultranationalist group that is publicly opposed to Putin but has also fielded pro-Russian fighters in the war since 2014.

Speaking to the Observer, Caesar called himself a “constitutional monarchist”. He said he admired Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and stressed that the legion’s fighters included people with left- and right-wing views, as well as disenchanted supporters of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader poisoned by the FSB spy agency and now in jail.

“We are a prototype of a future Russian society. There are different perspectives,” Caesar said. He was outraged by the Kremlin’s murderous bombing of civilians. The legion was “fighting and dying” for Ukraine’s future as well as Russia’s, he said.

“It’s a common struggle, a common tragedy,” he noted.

Caesar said Prigozhin’s uprising had weakened Putin. He said the Wagner mercenary leader had originally intended to capture and remove Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and commander in chief, Valery Gerasimov, last month, when he began an armed uprising.

Members of the Russian Volunteer Corps and Freedom of Russia Legion in Kharkiv in May.
Members of the Russian Volunteer Corps and Freedom of Russia Legion in Kharkiv in May. Photograph: Sergey Kozlov/EPA

The FSB learned of Prigozhin’s intention and moved the pair from Rostov-on-Don, Russia’s southern district military command. After taking over the southern city without meeting resistance, Prigozhin “improvised” and sent an armoured column towards Moscow, Caesar said.

Prigozhin’s whereabouts are currently unknown. As part of a deal he was supposed to move to Belarus, together with Wagner fighters who declined to sign contracts with Russia’s ministry of defence. On Thursday, however, Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, said Prigozhin was in St Petersburg, where officials apparently raided his mansion home. They discovered weapons, cash, gold bars, wigs and fake passports.

Caesar speculated that Prigozhin had so far escaped punishment after turning his armoured column back because he held kompromat or compromising material on Putin. “I don’t respect Prigozhin. He and Putin have the same values. Prigozhin is more charismatic and appeals to ultra-patriots who want to fight to the end. They think harsher methods will bring them victory. It’s not realistic.”

Sitting in a Kyiv cafe, he predicted the Putin regime would collapse by the end of 2024. It was now “cracking and unstable”. He said there was unhappiness within the Russian military, driven by the fact that many “conscienceless” soldiers from the provinces who joined up because they were broke had not been paid. “There’s a huge problem with money,” he said.

The dissolution of Wagner boosts Ukraine’s prospects on the battlefield, he argued. “Wagner was Russia’s most competent military outfit. I fought against them in Bakhmut. They nearly succeeded in taking the city. Their exit depresses the morale of the Russian army.” He continued: “I’m certain 100% Ukraine’s counter-offensive will succeed.”

Caesar was predictably scathing about Putin, whom he described as a small and cowardly “criminal boy”, who tried to terrorise his adversaries into submission, but retreated whenever he was confronted by force.

“He has degraded and lumpenised the Russian population, playing to their basest instincts. They became stupid and aggressive. He tells them they live badly because of the west rather than the truth – that their poor living conditions are the result of thieving and mafia government in Moscow,” he said.

After 23 years in power, Putin had grown paranoid, frightened and “like Stalin in his final years”, he suggested. The only way to get rid of him was to overthrow him using arms, he said. Political dialogue was pointless given Putin’s willingness to crush weaker opponents. He dismissed Russian liberals as violence-averse “dreamers” living in cosy exile.

The commander compared his small band to the “little Finnish army” that fought valiantly in 1939-40 against “the Red Bear”, during the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland. “We represent the best, bravest, cleverest part of Russia,” he said.

He admitted he met few local citizens during his brief incursions, after they were evacuated. The legion enjoyed support from many Russians fed up with Putin’s rule, he claimed.

And how did it feel when he crossed the international border last month and made a brief return to his homeland? “I enjoyed it,” he said.


Luke Harding in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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