Right-wing nationalists are spreading a dangerous “stab-in-the-back” myth to explain Russia’s crushing defeats.
A new Russian protest movement is coalescing, but it’s neither pro-democracy nor anti-war. Instead, it’s the most extreme of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supporters, who have grown increasingly furious at the unfolding military disaster for Russia in the six-month-long war in Ukraine. They want Putin to escalate the war, use more devastating weapons, and hit Ukrainian civilians even more mercilessly. And they’ve openly attacked the Russian military and political leadership for supposedly holding back Russia’s full might—even as they rarely mention Putin by name.
Their push to escalate the war, including widespread demands to use nuclear weapons, is dangerous in itself. But by creating a fantasy world in which a supposedly all-powerful Russian army is being defeated by domestic enemies—instead of by superior Ukrainian soldiers fighting for their own land with modern tactics and Western weapons—the movement has potentially disturbing implications for a postwar and possibly post-Putin Russia. In fact, the narrative sounds a lot like the Dolchstosslegende, the German “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory that blamed the country’s defeat in World War I on nefarious enemies at home, including Jews. This narrative of military defeat became an integral part of the propaganda that brought the Nazis to power.
The promoters of the Russian stab-in-the-back myth aren’t a single party, movement, or group. Rather, the protesters are a loose coalition—mostly active online—of far-right ideologues, militant extremists, veterans of the 2014 Donbas war, Wagner Group mercenaries, bloggers, war reporters running their own Telegram channels, and individual Russian state media staff. Some are soldiers or mercenaries fighting in Ukraine, and their channels have doubled as recruitment tools. Others already had a modest following before the war by promoting different causes, some obscure but mostly nationalist or right-wing issues: restoring the Soviet Union’s rule over Eastern Europe, building a new Russian empire, or promoting “Russia for the Russians.”
Their loyalty to the Kremlin varies from veneration of and complete submission to Putin as a godlike historical figure to activism in right-wing opposition movements. But unlike the Kremlin’s mouthpieces on state television and in its troll factories, members of this amorphous war escalation camp are united in their scathing criticism of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.
By creating a fantasy world in which the Russian army isn’t being defeated by Ukrainians but by domestic enemies, the movement has potentially disturbing implications for future Russian politics.
Their demand comes down to this: They want more war crimes—no mercy, no remorse, no pretense to even caring about civilian deaths until Ukraine is completely subdued and the very idea of Ukrainian-ness erased forever. Frustrated by the astonishing, unexpected defeat on Ukraine’s Kharkiv front, many pro-war bloggers demanded a swift retribution without regard for civilian deaths. Some recommended a nuclear strike on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to decapitate the government; popular blogger Maxim Fomin (who blogs as Vladlen Tatarsky), called for a nuclear warning strike against Ukraine’s Snake Island. Others called for “total war” against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. When the Russian military appeared to oblige by launching missiles at several Ukrainian cities’ electricity grids overnight, an orgy of gloating ensued on Russian pro-war channels.
The level of hatred and derision toward everything Ukrainian in their blog posts is difficult to convey. Ukrainians are described as illegal squatters on Russian imperial lands or followers of the Nazi bandits supposedly governing in Kyiv. Their cities must be “hammered into the Stone Age” while massacres against civilians are gleefully referred to as “pig-butchering.” Even as they throw the Nazi slur at Ukrainians, these Russians’ views are not only genocidal in ways that recall the worst crimes of the 20th century but also, in some cases, openly fascist or neo-Nazi.
Although most of these bloggers are unknown in the West—except to a small, dedicated circle of Russia-watchers—a few of them have caught the attention of the international press. Since they routinely point out Russian military failures in hopes of goading the Kremlin into escalating, some have become highly informative sources of unvarnished news from the front. As I write, I see Western war experts’ Twitter accounts full of detailed maps produced by pro-war Russians documenting the unfolding rout of Russian positions in the Kharkiv Oblast almost in real time while Ukrainian sources are several days behind in their statements in an attempt to preserve operational secrecy. The bloggers, who spout their diatribe mainly via Telegram and YouTube, also stand in sharp contrast to the bland, content-free triumphalism of Russia’s state-owned airwaves. The best-known individual among the critics is Igor Girkin, known by his nom de guerre, Strelkov. He is a retired Federal Security Service officer and a Russian Civil War reenactment aficionado who has proudly admitted that he “pulled the trigger of [the 2014 Donbas] war” when he led a band of armed Russians across the Ukrainian border, seized the city of Slovyansk, and held it for some six weeks.
By all accounts, Strelkov is a violent extremist—and quite possibly a war criminal for carrying out extrajudicial killings in the occupied Donbas in 2014. But he has become much-quoted in the Western press—and even profiled—as a critic of Putin’s war strategy since April, when he openly said Russia’s retreat from the Kyiv suburbs and parts of northeastern Ukraine had made a Russian defeat inevitable. On his Telegram channel, which has some 500,000 subscribers, and in his livestreams on the Russian social media network VKontakte, Strelkov has called Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a “plywood general” and Russian Security Council deputy chair Dmitry Medvedev a bumbling fool. The lack of a countrywide military mobilization, he said, is a major criminal oversight. But he has mostly steered clear of criticizing Putin directly—not out of respect but only “until the war is over,” as he hinted in a recent post. That may be a reason why there have been no apparent attempts to silence him.
Ironically, some of the least palatable figures in Russia are now the most consistent and insightful critics of the Kremlin’s strategy—if for all the wrong reasons. One of them is Igor Mangushev, a senior manager at the Internet Research Agency, the troll factory in St. Petersburg, Russia, that was responsible for disinformation campaigns and interference in Western elections. One of the most unapologetically genocidal supporters of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Mangushev recently gave a macabre performance in a Moscow club where he presented a human skull he claimed to have harvested from a Ukrainian soldier killed during the bloody siege of Mariupol. “We will burn down your homes, murder your families, take your children, and raise them as Russians” is a fairly typical post on his Telegram channel. He also claims credit for inventing the letter Z as the symbol of Russia’s invasion. Yet Mangushev has no love lost for Russia’s military brass and decision-makers in the Kremlin, constantly attacking them for what he says is their indecision and bureaucratic slumber, which he sees as the main obstacle to the war effort.
Equally indignant is Yevgeny Rasskazov, also known as Topaz and a member of the far-right Rusich mercenary unit associated with the Wagner Group. On April 20, Rasskazov posted what appeared to be a celebration of Adolf Hitler’s birthday without naming the former Nazi leader directly. After the Russians’ loss of Balakliya, a city in eastern Kharkiv Oblast, during last week’s surprise Ukrainian offensive, he mocked the Russian defense ministry for attempting to present the defeat as a “tactical feint.” In a monologue, Rasskazov listed all the things that, in his view, the Russian war machine lacks: honesty in admitting a local defeat, a fully reformed defense ministry, more skilled commanders, and a well-oiled military with better coordination among different branches of the military.
In attempting to explain the Russian military’s increasingly desperate situation in Ukraine, the pro-war camp is developing its own “stab-in-the-back” myth that echoes the German intrawar version. Already, voices such the ultra-conservative pundit and RT commentator Egor Kholmogorov are openly accusing the Russian top command of criminal incompetence and demanding purges. The movement’s anger at treacherous “elites”—as of yet unnamed but almost universally reviled—is palpable. Although still marginal, there is even a new emerging subculture associated with the movement; for example, “Bands of Veterans” by singer Pavel Plamenev is a modern rock version of a 1920s German song, “We Are Geyer’s Black Company,” which became part of the official Nazi songbook. In Plamenev’s version, a Russian Donbas veteran returns from the war filled with rage, urging his fellow soldiers to burn the palaces of the rich and pass their wives around among the looters. In a worrying sign for the Kremlin, the new pro-war opposition is increasingly turning to the same indignant anti-corruption messages that fueled the opposition movement headed by now-jailed Russian dissident Alexey Navalny.
Surprisingly, considering the Kremlin’s accelerated crackdown on criticism since the start of the invasion in February, there have been no high-profile arrests of pro-war bloggers or even signs of censorship so far. The Kremlin couldn’t have missed these outbursts; a special monitoring department in the presidential administration watches Russian social media platforms closely and files daily reports to Putin’s aides. Nonetheless, there are signs that Moscow recognizes the problem and will seek to rein in the angry nationalists who are fast becoming what political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya calls “the most significant challenge to the Kremlin” since it crushed Navalny’s movement.
Whether or not the Kremlin now cracks down, the pro-war movement’s toxic narrative will take on a life of its own—especially if and when Russia loses the war, which is now all but inevitable. As the disconnect between official propaganda about an easy, successful “special operation” and the reality of crushing defeat becomes clear, many Russians will be looking for someone to blame. Here, the German example is instructive, where the combination of defeat, national humiliation, and economic collapse was the fertile soil for right-wing, extremist movements that blamed domestic enemies, assassinated liberal politicians, stirred antisemitic hate, and swore revenge on the victorious World War I Allies. This was the vicious brew that Hitler fed on as he rose to power.
Russia’s inevitable defeat, deep economic malaise, and loss of great-power status at the hands of a country whose existence the Kremlin didn’t even recognize will be fertile ground for extremists. That counts double should Putin’s regime fall and a struggle for the future course of Russia ensue. If the pro-war nationalists searching for enemies to blame are the only opposition left in Russia, the world may be going down a dark and dangerous track.