Roman Popkov dabbled in Russia’s far-left and far-right political scenes before devoting himself to the armed overthrow of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the name of democracy. In 2011, he moved to Kyiv after getting imprisoned in Russia for taking part in anti-Putin protests. His greatest success may have come last month, on April 2, when a noted Russian propagandist, Vladlen Tatarsky, was killed in a St. Petersburg cafe. Popkov is rumored to have recruited the assassin on behalf of Ukraine’s intelligence service and to have helped plan the killing.
In a lengthy chat with Foreign Policy via encrypted messaging, Popkov remembered Darya Trepova, the alleged recruit, as one of the “best people” he had ever known and described her as a “hero” for opposing Russia’s Ukraine invasion. He neither confirmed nor denied that he had personally played a role in the attack but admitted that the rebel network he works for, Rospartizan, was involved in the “liquidation of Putin’s propagandist and war criminal Vladlen Tatarsky.” He added that other Russian partisan groups collaborated as well. National Republican Army (NRA), another partisan group represented by former Duma deputy, Ilya Ponomarev, has also claimed to have carried out the attack.
It is hard to verify Popkov’s claims, but his commitment and self-righteousness were impossible to deny. Popkov expressed his conviction that a Russian-led guerrilla movement will be the only way to dispose of Putin, dismissing the nonviolent protestations of Russian exiles in Europe as ineffective, short-sighted, and even immoral. He did little to dispel the notion that the Russian opposition has deep strategic divides.
“We in Ukraine live under rocket attacks. Our comrades in Russia are risking their lives and freedom in the fight against tyranny. And the Russian political emigration in Europe sits in cafes and talks,” he said. Popkov added he wanted the West to “recognize the right of free Russians to fight evil. And treat it with respect.”
Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, mysterious attacks have occurred across Russia. Explosives have derailed trains, blown up power lines, and damaged a bridge connecting Crimea to Russia. Arsonists have also thrown Molotov cocktails at military enlistment centers. Russian opposition groups later claimed credit for these attacks as part of a larger armed rebellion.
But who are these groups? How strong are they, and do they receive Ukrainian and Western support, as Russia has claimed? “Ukrainian special forces and their Western curators have launched an aggressive ideological indoctrination and recruitment of our citizens,” Alexander Bortnikov, the chief of the notorious Federal Security Bureau (FSB), or Russia’s interior intelligence agency, said last month.
The United States has rejected accusations of involvement and said it had no previous knowledge of any of the attacks that took place inside the Russian Federation, with intelligence officials whispering to reporters that their ally, Ukraine, may have kept them in the dark. Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement, securing plausible deniability yet allowing rumors of a Mossad-style competence to linger.
Conventional wisdom says that, in the secretive game of covert warfare or undercover resistance, the full truth may come out only later, depending on who wins, but the theory of deduction could be deployed to try to make some sense of these events.
Foreign Policy’s conversations with Russian dissidents and open-source information indicate that some groups appear to have received some sort of support from Ukraine. But that seems not to detract from the sincerity of their commitment to the anti-Putin cause.
Ponomarev, the only Russian lawmaker who voted against Crimea’s annexation, told Foreign Policy that he is personally connected to about half a dozen Russian partisan groups inside Russia and was channeling Ukrainian support to help the groups in carrying out their missions. “I am helping them,” he said, elusively adding, “with certain things.” When asked if he was sending across weapons or explosives, he said, “I think it is pretty obvious what partisan groups need.”
There is determinable evidence of the presence of several such groups, including the Combat Organization of Anarcho-Communists (or BOAK, an acronym of its Russian name), Stop the Wagons (STW), Freedom of Russia Legion, and the far-right Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC). There are some doubts over the existence of the NRA, politically represented by Ponomarev, as it seems to be either operating in the shadows for security reasons or is simply nonexistent.
Among the more active groups is BOAK, whose co-founder, Dmitry Petrov, also known as Ilya Leshy, had also fought in Syria. BOAK carried out several attacks of sabotage including an explosion that damaged a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway in Krasnoyarsk in early January. Last year this month they blew up a railway line that regularly transported military equipment to a Russian military base north of Moscow, leaving their initials on the track. The group is on the list Ponomarev mentioned as receiving Ukrainian support. The group, nonetheless, is a genuine partisan entity that existed before the war started and fought at home for basic freedoms.
Petrov recently died in Bakhmut fighting for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, a Ukrainian military reserve force. In his obituary his associates described him as a Russian anarchist active since the 2000s who fought for workers’ rights, the environment, and alongside the Kurds in the Syrian war. In a farewell note he left behind, he wrote, “I did it for the sake of justice, protection of Ukrainian society and liberation of my country, Russia, from oppression.” These are words that indicate independent agency rather than coercion by or influence from another state to undertake subversion.
Denis Nikitin, the leader of the far-right RVC who is also known as Denis Kapustin, has been active for more than a decade. Nikitin roamed around in far-right circles in several European countries after moving to Germany in 2001 and befriended German soccer hooligans. He launched a white nationalist fashion brand called White Rex with Nazi symbols imprinted on clothing items.
On March 2, Nikitin’s men slipped into the Bryansk region of Russia through Ukraine and carried out a raid in which Russian officials said two civilians were killed. A video made available online shows two of their men, impressing on their compatriots that they came as liberators and not saboteurs and called upon fellow Russians to take up arms and fight against Putin, adding “death to the Kremlin’s tyrant” toward the end of the message as shots were heard in the background.
Nikitin told the Financial Times that the operation had been given the go-ahead from Ukrainian authorities to expose the weaknesses of Russia’s border security—and evidently also to encourage rebellion among Russians. Ukraine has denied providing any direct support to the group, aware that it could be used by Putin to strengthen his de-Nazification argument.
Popkov said that neither RVC nor BOAK is connected with Rospartizan, but that one should not be surprised that the far left and far right were both part of the resistance. Putin’s regime, he said, “is an absolute evil” and has “united a wide variety of people against itself.”
Among other partisan Russian groups is STW, which has no known links to Ukraine. It has derailed a number of freight trains supplying war material to Russian troops and perhaps slowed them down.
Popkov and Ponomarev—who sometimes appear together on the latter’s newscast, February Morning—both believe that peaceful methods have run their course and it is time for armed resistance. It is true that Russians who challenge Putin politically are often found dead, jailed, or exiled. (According to some estimates, at least 70 cases of treason have been launched since the start of the war, a major uptick even by Russian standards.)
But the potential for success of an armed resistance in a society tightly controlled by security forces is debatable. Alexandra Garmazhapova, the head of the Free Buryatia Foundation, a dissident group representing an ethnic minority in Russia, was declared a foreign agent by the Russian government and forced to flee to Czechia. Speaking to FP from Prague, Garmazhapova said she is “against violence,” and in any case didn’t think much of the armed resistance since, she feared, the FSB is very much “in control” of the situation. “No one can just carry out a bombing in Russia,” she said. “It is much more difficult than it seems.”
Changing the course of Russian politics is even harder than that. For all the attacks that have already taken place, the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine has not yet noticeably changed.