Federico Borgonovo, a research-analyst at the Italian Team for Security Terroristic issues and Managing Emergencies (ITSTIME) at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. He specializes in digital ethnography, social media intelligence, and social network analysis.
The Russo-Ukrainian War
The Russo-Ukrainian war of 2022 represents one of the clearest examples of hybrid warfare. If hybrid warfare is characterized by a multiplicity of actors deployed on the field, the Ukrainian battleground surpasses all precedents. The fighting is being engaged in by regular units combined with many local or foreign irregular units, including militias, paramilitary forces, and mercenaries. These actors, albeit linked to a reference line-up, remain semi-autonomous in giving themselves the “good reasons” to fight.
The result is that the institutional negotiations for peace in Ukraine will probably have insignificant effects on the demobilization of the fighters. The mobilization of mercenaries and volunteers, ideologically or religiously inspired militias, criminal, and terrorist groups were promoted by national institutions without realizing that they would lose control over these same groups. Many of the militias, on both sides, appear to be linked to far-Right groups with a very strong ideological and religious basis that make them very determined to fight. These are militias led by their leaders, charismatic individuals with strong ties to their subordinates.
Analysts and researchers have extensively studied Ukrainian militias known for their connections to neo-Nazi and far-Right groups, well before the outbreak of war. But still little has been written on the Russian front. The first information emerged only when the propaganda of both sides started talking about it.
The Pro-Putin Militias I: Ideological Push Factors
In fact, the irregular formations used by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, are much more diverse than the Ukrainian ones. There are several militias driven by two different push factors: ethnic-ideological ties and political-economic alliances. As far as the ethnic-ideological sphere is concerned, we observe that a large part of the pro-Russian paramilitary units comes from the territories of the “republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk, the areas of eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia in 2014. The fundamental cultural substrate of most of these units belong to Russian-speaking ethnic groups (with some exceptions).
Starting from this sociolinguistic basis, a very varied ideological spectrum unfolds. Said spectrum is made of different currents, which characterize the militias both from a symbolic and an operational point of view.
These ideologies can be divided into four macro categories:
- One of the main currents is “Eurasianism”. Consolidated and exported to Europe by Aleksandr Dugin, Eurasianism proved to be a pull factor for militants from both the far-Right and the far-Left.
- Linked to the Eurasian vision but distinct in their philosophical imprints are the ANTIFA and pro-Soviet extreme-Left fringes. These militiamen are mainly from abroad, but some are also involved in the Russian National Bolshevik Party.
- There are also ideological currents related to “neo-Tsarism” and Orthodox fundamentalism, which originate from the Russian imperialist spirit.
- And finally, there is an ultra-nationalist component of the extreme-Right, originating from the political movement known as RNU (Russian National Unit) born from the ashes of Pamyat, a patriotic Christian Orthodox organization dating back to the 1970s.
Individual Russian militias do not generally have a single ideological vocation. Rather, most possess influences, to varying extents, from multiple of the ideological streams identified above.
One of the most iconic is the Sparta Battalion, part of the armed forces of the “Republic of Donetsk”. The voluntarily-formed unit uses a combination of symbols of the Spartan military culture, well-known drivers of the far-Right, and from the Tsarist era.
Moving towards the neo-Nazi fringes, we find the RNU, and its voluntary militia made up of ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi minutemen.
On the other hand, the work of the Russian Orthodox Army is oriented around, as the name suggests, the Orthodox fundamentalist current, and the unit stands accused of war crimes against Ukrainians motivated by religious sectarianism, targeting populations of the Catholic and Protestant faith.
To confirm the hybrid picture of the ongoing conflict, we also find the existence of far-Left paramilitary units fighting together with the aforementioned neo-Nazi or ultra-nationalist forces. These include the Russian Interbrigades of the National Bolshevik Party and several ANTIFA militiamen from Spain and Italy.
The Pro-Putin Militias II: Economic-Strategic Alliances
Alongside the forces clearly ideological in nature, Putin’s hybrid army can deploy a series of mercenary units. These units’ loyalty to the Russian cause is guaranteed, obviously, by the economic bond, but also by the alliance system that Putin himself has created.
The main mercenary units of which we know are the following:
- The Wagner Group is ostensibly a Russian private military company (PMC), though it is linked very closely to the circle of oligarchs around Putin and the GRU (Russian military intelligence). Already known to analysts for its operations in Syria and Iraq and the recent involvement in Africa, it appears that it was Wagner that Moscow tasked with assassinating Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and infiltrating enemy lines in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, as part of the effort for a rapid decapitation strike in the first days of the war. In this case, the nominal PMC was used as the spearhead of the GRU, together with the classic Spetsnaz forces.
- The notorious Chechen units. Known as the Kadyrovtsy, literally “Kadyrov’s men”, they are named for Ramzan Kadyrov (and by extension his father, Akhmad Kadyrov), a close ally of Putin’s and the “keeper” of Chechnya. Considered as a paradigm of the hybrid conflict, they consist of regular units framed in the national guard (Chechen Rosgvardiya) and in a motorized regiment, combined with other paramilitary or mercenary units.
- Finally, as a last resort, Putin is drawing on his alliance with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, recruiting mercenaries to be employed in the current urban conflict. Specifically, Putin is allegedly recruiting Syrian fighters from the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, a unit trained and supplied by the Russians themselves to fight in the Syrian Civil War. The soldiers of this division are trained for urban combat and have at least ten years of battlefield experience.
The Russian side shows us, once again, the hybrid nature of this new conflict. The plurality of actors deployed and their apparent absence of structural links with regular armies, now represent a classic component of the hybrid conflict. Thanks to the system of alliances and relationships, Putin can change his own line-up by drawing on different military units made available by the allies or by the market itself (most of the time it is a combination of the two dimensions). On the strategic-military level, the options available are increasing with important tactical repercussions. What few are considering is what will happen when military operations cease and how this hybrid warfare apparatus will be demobilized—above all, if it is even possible to do that.