The distinction between political left and right in modern Russia differs from the framing used in Western narratives. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Communist party for many years was perceived as part of the political right, defending socialist values (read: conservative) and state-planned economy (read: traditional).
The European-style ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazi groups that constitute Russia’s contemporary far right became vocal in the early 2000s: they held mass rallies and organised so-called “Russian marches”, gathering several thousand supporters. They split in 2014 over Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and subsequent Russian military intervention in Eastern Ukraine. Some denounced Russia’s war and praised Maidan as an example of “a nation-building” protest, while others openly supported separatists in Donbass. The latter joined the fight against Ukraine’s sovereignty and embraced the concept of “Russkiy mir” (the “Russian World”), or shared linguistic, cultural and historical identity that extends beyond Russia’s current borders.
This split within the Russian right continued after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. Some nationalists voluntarily joined the ranks of Russian fighters believing that they can restore the Empire. Others, though admittedly far fewer, counterintuitively chose to fight for Ukraine: their ideology is based on the idea of a nation-state and “Russia for Russians” that doesn’t exist in today’s Russia because even in the post-Soviet era it’s an amalgam of many groups and peoples. They see their fight for Ukraine as a way to liberate Russia from non-Russians and to build what they view as a new, pure nation-state.
Consequently, the far-right movement in Russia is deeply fractured and frail. And, as in Soviet times, ideological differences between the left and the right are distorted in an overall authoritarian system.
But a new force – adjacent to but not really part of the far right – has built influence in the public and political life of the country to the extent it is sometimes presented as a new right-wing challenge to the regime.
New radicals: the war party
The term “far right” in Russia is almost never applied to radical supporters of the war with Ukraine. However, it is this new group, better described as Russia’s “war party”, that is the most vocal in radicalising domestic political narrative and pumping in propaganda. It is an explosive blend of divergent groups of former and current combatants, public intellectuals and writers, journalists and propagandists, businessmen connected to the Kremlin, acting heads of regions and some MPs, who are united by the belief that the war against Ukraine is existential to Russia.
From their perspective, the war is a historical test of whether Moscow is capable of restoring its empire in Eurasia, where Russian culture, language and social order are total. If it fails, Russia faces a collapse of statehood as dramatic as the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 or the Russian Empire in 1917.
For the Kremlin, this is a double-edged sword: a useful mobilisation tool and a challenge that requires a lot of management. So far, the regime has succeeded in using the radicals to keep the country mobilised. It may need to wield them in future, should the war in Ukraine end on terms unfavourable to the regime. The war party is very open about its intentions: Russia wins the war if the independent Ukraine ceases to exist. Acceptable solutions also include for Ukraine to transform into a nominally sovereign state under Russia’s control or an end state in which Russia and the West divide Ukraine and Moscow occupies all central and south-eastern regions.
The war party has run public campaigns against the Russian Ministry of Defence and criticised some members of the elite who continue to pursue their lavish lifestyles while the country is fighting the war. Combatants and journalists ardently denounced withdrawal from the Kharkiv region and Kherson last year. And some commentators note that the war party is granted more freedom than other loyalists of the regime.
Putin’s double-edged sword
The emergence of the war party has been an unintended consequence of the failure of the original plan for the “special military operation” in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s administration had no plan on how to handle domestic politics in case of a protracted conflict.
When the war started and numerous videos of Russian captives and destroyed equipment appeared online, the Kremlin was losing badly in terms of propaganda. The state media war correspondents, bloggers and radical pundits helped the regime fix this problem quickly by painting a picture of successful fighting and by formulating clear war goals, which Putin didn’t want to or could not present.
But there are potential downsides for Russian leadership. The Kremlin may be concerned that some members of this network are articulating their political ambitions. For example, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner Group – a private military company with close links to Putin – or the former combatant Igor Strelkov. It may also worry Putin that Prigozhin’s open conflict with the Ministry of Defence, and some of his actions – such as executing mercenaries rescued from Ukrainian captivity and publishing videos of executions online – have gone too far, showing publicly that even the most loyal members of the president’s entourage can get out of hand. The Kremlin may also be anxious that the war party will “overheat” Russian society and the regime may lose support if Putin decides to compromise with Kyiv to end the war.
But new radicals have become Kremlin’s indispensable tool. Putin understands that he cannot sustain a war of attrition without a societal consensus to continue at all costs and without active grassroots supporters. So, paradoxically, the Kremlin grants ardent supporters of the war the freedom of speech that its opponents could never have.
Over the last year, the Kremlin had to make two decisions to adjust the Russian political system to a new reality of war.
First, the presidential administration decided to increase patriotic propaganda dramatically and introduced new media and activism formats – for example, Russia revived the Soviet-era young pioneers’ movement. Second, the Kremlin encouraged radical opinion leaders to promote grassroots patriotic consolidation and to create an impression that the country is ready for a long-term confrontation. The war party also got free rein in defining and discussing the goals and objectives of the war to unite all groups of revanchists, from nationalists and communists to imperialists and monarchists. The Kremlin wanted everybody to be involved. And as long as the Kremlin is interested in a prolonged military campaign, the war party will have access to media and other resources.
However, depending on how the regime manages the exit from the war, various options are possible.
In case of a compromise with Ukraine, and if the regime retains control, the Kremlin will likely try to restructure the narrative using moderate loyalists. In this scenario, the leaders of the war party will either be quickly removed from the public eye, or the authorities will use leverage against them to modify their position.
If the Kremlin is unable to end the war on the conditions it would see as favourable, Putin will likely seek to appropriate the ideology and rhetoric of the war party as a means to consolidate his regime. These would serve as a tool to confront any who might advocate for an end to the conflict. They could be used to promote the idea that “liberating” what the war party views as Russian land in Ukraine is an existential fight. In this scenario, Putin will continue to blame any battlefield failures on Western support for Ukraine, including from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and continue to present himself as the only leader strong enough to defend Russia and Russians against a West set upon bringing it and them down. For the Kremlin, battlefield setbacks are unlikely to lead to compromise and retrospection, but more likely a closer alignment with the radicals in the war party who would argue any such path would amount to a betrayal of Russians who have already died on the front.
Relations between the war party and the Kremlin would of course sour if the radicals start attacking Putin directly and there is an open split among the Russian elite, with the Kremlin losing control over public narratives. But this scenario is highly unlikely. The war party – apart from several indirect outbursts – has hardly criticised the president so far. Even the Kremlin’s most radical critics within the war party say that Putin’s resignation would be catastrophic for Russia.