Russian President Vladimir Putin has struggled to maintain control over religious radicals and other aggressive advocates of his war against Ukraine, though his political ideology and worldview do not significantly differ from their own (see EDM, August 17). Conversely, these same radicals, recognizing the Kremlin’s reliance on their ideas, are demanding more from Moscow and increasingly engaging in efforts to promote their agenda at home and abroad. Their actions, at times, directly contradict the interests of the Kremlin and its allies.
Conspiracy theorists and radicals have intermittently slipped out from under the Kremlin’s control in the past. They have occasionally rebelled against the Putin regime’s positions and provided talking points on various issues. For example, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, official Russian propaganda embraced some of the most extreme conspiracy theories, which significantly bolstered radical factions’ influence. This subsequently posed significant challenges to vaccination efforts within Russia itself. Theories suggesting that the pandemic was deliberately initiated by “global elites” were broadcast officially (Topwar.ru, March 22, 2020). Other conspiracies portrayed COVID vaccines as nothing more than a means of “microchipping” people and was implemented by Bill Gates to control humanity and reduce the global population (YouTube, May 1, 2020). Statements regarding the British or American origins of the virus were also disseminated by Russian state-owned media (BBC News Russian, April 9, 2020).
A natural consequence of such propaganda is widespread distrust in official policy among a significant segment of the Russian population (RBC, May 28, 2020). The most notable example of a “radical uprising” during the pandemic was the takeover of the Middle Ural Monastery by Hieromonk Sergei (Romanov), a well-known opponent of government measures such as the Individual Taxpayer Number and anti-COVID measures. Romanov openly opposed both secular and ecclesiastical officials, even calling on Putin to step down. The prominent Russian theologian Andrei Desnitsky described Romanov’s views as a “revolt by the resurrected Middle Ages” (The Insider, July 14, 2020).
Even before its full-scale aggression in Ukraine, the Kremlin could not afford to distance itself from domestic radical groups. Moscow used fanatic preachers to propagate anti-Western conspiracy theories and engaged these individuals to maintain contacts with radical pro-Russian groups abroad. These groups have managed to destabilize those states traditionally seen as unfriendly to the Putin regime (Svoboda, August 15, 2017) and, paradoxically, those countries Russia typically considers allies. For example, Serbia, closely connected to Moscow through historical and economic ties, has pursued friendly relations with Russia for many years (BBC News Russian, March 17, 2022). Russian conservative circles, however, have openly maintained relations with Serbian radicals who are critical of their own country’s representatives due to what they describe as “excessive liberalism.”
Russian radicals typically build on such sentiments to influence official messaging. In the Serbian case, Russian federal websites enthusiastically published articles by Serbian authors criticizing President Aleksandar Vucic for his deviation from traditional Serbian values and his perceived “betrayal of Kosovo” (Regnum, August 11, 2021). Serbian politicians who consider themselves “friends of Russia” openly declared that their goal is to “fight against pro-Western regimes,” of which the Vucic regime is one example (Ruserbia.com, December 27, 2021).
Once the war began, it seemed that the Kremlin intensified its support of Vucic. Serbia was the only European country other than Belarus that did not impose sanctions on Russia (RIA Novosti, September 19). Russian lawmakers openly emphasized that Moscow cannot afford to lose such an ally (Lenta.ru, April 7).
Radical groups in Russia, nevertheless, seemingly disregarded their government’s appeals. For instance, the Wagner Group carried out the active recruitment of Serbs to fight in Ukraine, and Vucic strongly condemned such practices (Novayagazeta.ru, February 8). Meanwhile, prominent Russian media outlets continued to cite Serbian political analysts who branded Vucic as a traitor due to his “pro-Western stance.” These analysts insisted that “the lives of Serbs directly depend on Russia’s success in the [special military operation]” (Ura.news, January 24).
Such narratives do little to strengthen Russia’s bilateral relations with Serbia and others. It appears that, over the years, radical elements in Russia have established a system of “parallel diplomacy,” in which they maintain relationships with like-minded individuals without paying much attention to the Kremlin’s interests.
Most Russian Orthodox radicals have not openly rebelled against the Kremlin, with the notable exceptions of Russian propagandist Igor Girkin (Strelkov) and the late Yevgeny Prigozhin. As the war drags on, Orthodox radicals have significantly bolstered their positions and made their demands more globally. They openly proclaim that the war’s primary goal is the “creation of the Kingdom of God in a specific country” and that God “inspired Putin to launch the [special military operation]” (YouTube, September 17).
Many experts point out that Putin cannot drop his support of radical patriots amid the ongoing war (YouTube, August 30). The Kremlin will likely have to make further concessions to these radical wings in pursuit of the “Kingdom of God,” whether that involves banning abortions or distancing itself from systemic liberals (see EDM, April 25). Such concessions will likely lead to significant dissatisfaction among the Russian population, which, according to pro-Kremlin sociologists, is increasingly questioning and criticizing Moscow’s rationale for the war (T.me/russica2, September 20). Widespread social discontent would all but doom Putin’s war effort.