On October 31, the Tsargrad Hotel, owned by Russian “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, hosted the Sixth Congress of the Union of Donbas Volunteers (UDV). The UDV is headed by former prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) Alexander Borodai (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 31). This quasi veterans’ organization was founded by Vladislav Surkov, a former long-time advisor to President Vladimir Putin and one of the curators of the Moscow-backed puppet republics in Ukrainian Donbas. Surkov is presently a member of the UDV Council of Commanders and was expected to take part in the Congress during which he would supervise the signing of an agreement on strategic cooperation between the UDV and the reactionary Russian political party Rodina (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 29). On the eve of the event, Rodina’s leader, Alexei Zhuravlev, confirmed the news. Meanwhile, Borodai declared that the UDV intends to enhance its presence in Russian politics through elections to local and federal bodies. In the near future, he announced, UDV members would become heads of regional branches of the Rodina party.
Ultimately, a number of key figures (including Surkov) did not show up at last month’s UDV Congress. And yet, the gathering nonetheless became a landmark event. The main topic of discussion was, in fact, the UDV’s participation in Russian politics. In his speech before the assembly, Borodai stressed that the UDV itself has never been a political party (and has no intention of becoming one), but the Union aims to take part in Russian elections at all levels (municipal, regional and federal)—including the 2021 State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) elections. This participation would happen through cooperation with already existing national parties, including Rodina, the Communists and the ruling United Russia (Alternatio.org, November 5). Incidentally, the issue of the UDV’s participation in politics was previously discussed during the organization’s spring congress (Svoi.city, July 1). But only during the most recent meeting did the UDV formally proclaim its plan by adopting and signing a political memorandum to this effect. Of the document’s 14 points, 2 warrant special attention. First, the UDV is pushing for “volunteers”—Russian militants/mercenaries participating in various regional conflicts—to be recognized in Russian legislation; and second, the organization demands state protection for those Russian “volunteers” actively taking part in regional conflicts beyond the country’s borders (19rus.info, November 3).
Another important topic touched upon during the October 31 Congress was the question of whether to back sending volunteers to armed conflicts abroad, in particular, in Karabakh. Although the delegates to the gathering decided to postpone sending volunteers at that time, Malofeev (also present at the Congress) stated that “the interests of the UDV are not limited to Donbas, since veterans defend the ideals of the entire Russian World [Russikiy Mir]. And the Russian World is what was left from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, even the territories that, after the collapse of the [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics], turned out to be abroad” (Tsargrad.tv, November 2).
In turn, while discussing current events in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Karabakh, Borodai asserted that an alarming situation was developing around Russia, creating a “loop [petlia] of instability… The UDV aims to solve the problems of the Russian people outside the formal borders of the Russian Federation but within the borders of the Russian World. In this sense, the UDV is the Union of Citizens of the Russian World.” At the same time, the UDV’s head mentioned that external forces intent on destroying the Russian state from the inside have created hotbeds of tension within the country. As a result, the task of the UDV is to support Putin and to be loyal to the Russian authorities (Tsargrad.tv, November 1). It should be noted that the UDV, an opaque organization created in the fall of 2015 as a “hub” for combat veterans who had fought in Donbas, has apparently been involved in recruiting militants for a number of Russian private military companies (PMC) that operate (mostly semi-clandestinely) in various conflicts around the world (see Jamestown.org , October 9, 2019). According to Borodai, the UDV boasted 14,500 members as of the end of 2019; in the 49 branches opened across Russia, 98 percent of the Union’s veterans allegedly had combat experience (Tass.com, December 14, 2019). From the UDV’s perspective, the existence of multiple internal and external threats to Russia’s stability logically compels the organization to enter political life in the country.
Interestingly, all of Borodai’s statements he made during the UDV Congress at the Tsargrad Hotel precisely echoed the “manifesto” of Malofeev’s Two-Headed Eagle Society, published a few days before the meeting (Rusorel.info, October 26). This could suggest that the UDV’s transition to a political force might outwardly indicate the formation of a new alliance between Borodai, Malofeev (the sponsor of attempts to create a pro-Russian “Novorossiya” entity in Ukrainian Donbas) and Surkov (the ideologist). Furthermore, the UDV’s potential cooperation with existing political parties, in particular with Rodina—reportedly patronized by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close links to President Putin and an alleged sponsor of the Wagner Group PMC as well as the notorious St. Petersburg troll factory—could result in the emergence of a new, well-organized and “patriotic” political force equipped with (para)military skills (Versia.ru, October 31). Even though such a right-wing nationalistic party would likely receive limited support from the electorate, it could still draw votes away from other opposition parties. On the eve of Duma elections, with Putin’s (and United Russia’s) ratings low, the Kremlin might opt to cultivate such nationalistic-patriotism and repeat the Rodina party’s electoral successes of 2003, when it managed to draw 9 percent of the vote away from the Communists (Planeta.press, November 1). Indeed, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin (the first DPR “defense minister”) has himself told the media that the project could prove promising (Versia.ru, October 31).
While it is difficult to predict whether the pro-Putin UDV will find a place for itself in Russian politics, former Donbas militants have unquestionably already staked out a niche for themselves in the domestic political violence “market.” One year ago, as the protests in Yekaterinburg began to grow, UDV veterans were called in to help to solve the “problem.” Moreover, the Donbas volunteers’ group supports a certain level of mobilization in Russian society on the Ukrainian question (Svoi.city, July 1). Were the domestic and/or international situation around Russia become further aggravated, the organization could ensure a massive influx of mercenaries to support Putin’s power both at home and abroad.