Since the beginning of the conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, Moscow has repeatedly denied sending troops or weapons to help the rebels.
Recruited by far-right nationalist movements, these men are ideologically driven to fight what has been nicknamed “the Russian Jihad”.
FRANCE 24 joined a group of these would-be fighters as they headed for the combat zone.
‘Russian imperialist nationalists’
Evgeny Mazepin is a recruiter for the self-styled “Russian Volunteer battalion”.
He works out of an office in the city of Voronezh, 500km south of Moscow and 150km from the Ukrainian border.
“Ideologically we are all Russian imperialist nationalists, descendants of the White Guard,” he explains, in reference to the anti-communist forces that waged a civil war against the Bolsheviks in the years immediately after the 1917 Russian Revolution.
“Every day we receive about 10 applications from candidates who want to join the battalion,” he says. “Our aim is to liberate the land we call Novorossiya – New Russia – and its Russian people from the enemy, the Kiev junta.”
Novorussia was the 18th and 19th century name for the region of Imperial Russia that now comprises Ukraine.
‘Mentally I am ready to die’
FRANCE 24 talks to a group of the battalion’s volunteers heading for the border and into Ukraine. Among them is a Russian calling himself Norman.
“I'm a nationalist and my priority is protecting the Russian people,” he told FRANCE 24. “Despite what many in Ukraine think, the Russian state is not involved in this mission. If Russia was involved, this war would have been over in four days.”
The group head for Luhansk, in Eastern Ukraine, with food and other supplies for their comrades across the border.
On arrival in Ukraine, they are each handed an AK47 rifle and a few magazines’ of ammunition, and waited at a camp for orders to join the fight.
“Mentally, I am ready to die,” says Norman. “This war will be won by our sacrifice.”
“For me this territory is Russian, the communists gave it away unfairly,” he argues, referring to a decision by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 to cede parts of Russian territory, including the Crimean peninsula, to Ukraine.
“This land must be returned to the Russian people.”