Anti-Putin forces ‘the Freedom of Russia Legion’ plan fresh attacks inside Russia

Caesar, the commander of the Freedom of Russia Legion, in Dolyna, Ukraine last year. Photograph: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images

The commander of the Freedom of Russia Legion says his fighters are planning another cross-border raid into Russia and are seeking to capitalize 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.

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