How Russia and Vladimir Putin Weaponised the Far-Right

The death of Darya Dugina in a suspected car bombing has brought the Kremlin’s deep ties with the far-right into sharp focus once more.
Decade of Hate is a series that covers the dangerous rise of far-right movements across Europe over the past 10 years.

The killing of Darya Dugina, the daughter of Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, has once again shone a spotlight on the far-right ideologue and his supposed influence on Vladimir Putin.

Speculation is rife that a suspected car bomb was intended for Dugin, who some Russia-watchers believe is a profound influence on Putin, to the extent that his ultranationalist writings may have informed the decision to invade Ukraine. Dugin and Dugina had attended a festival outside Moscow on Saturday night and had reportedly been planning on travelling together afterwards.


Less than 48 hours after Dugina was killed, Russia’s security agency the FSB blamed Ukraine for orchestrating the killing, something denied outright by Ukrainian officials.

Dugin, a bearded ultraconservative who some have dubbed “Putin’s Rasputin,” has long espoused a vision of a revived and authoritarian Russian empire, including territories like Ukraine, strong enough to face down the geopolitical challenge of the decadent West. Dugina, a journalist, was a strong supporter of Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. She had been sanctioned by the UK government. In a statement posted to Telegram, Dugin labelled his daughter’s killing “a terrorist act by the Ukrainian Nazi regime.”

The alleged influence of Dugin’s ultranationalist ideology on Putin is just one of the connections that makes the Kremlin’s claim of having invaded Ukraine to “de-Nazify” the country breathtakingly hypocritical.

Visitors in Moscow inspect a military vehicle with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

Visitors in Moscow inspect a military vehicle with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

The Kremlin has its own deep track record of alliances and connections with the far-right, including violent neo-Nazi groups, to help achieve its political goals both at home and overseas. 

READ: Why Putin trotted out a “Nazi” smear to try to justify the Ukraine invasion

While Russian propaganda has consistently highlighted the far-right credentials of the powerful Azov Regiment, an ultranationalist fighting force that has been a part of Ukraine’s National Guard since 2014, Moscow’s own supposed “de-Nazification” operation in Ukraine has involved at least two right-wing extremist paramilitaries fighting on its side.


READ: How a war on the edge of Europe became a training ground for the far-right

One, the Russian Imperial Legion, has even been designated by the United States as a white supremacist terrorist organisation. Among other things, the St. Petersburg-based group has emerged as a security threat for giving combat training to foreign extremists who have gone on to carry out attacks on their home soil on their return.

Moscow’s recent history of weaponising right-wing extremists stretches back to the early years of the century. As a wave of pro-democracy protest movements, known as the colour revolutions, swept through the former Soviet sphere, the Russian government was concerned that a similar movement could take root at home, presenting a threat to its grip on power.

The Kremlin feared that such uprisings could “set a very bad example for the Russians… that they can modernise, that they can democratise, and then it would be very difficult for the Putin regime to still repress Russia,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian expert on the European radical right and its ties to Russia.

In response, the Kremlin ramped up a covert policy known as “managed nationalism” – forming behind-the-scenes relationships with various groups in Russia’s thriving ultranationalist scene, co-opting them as a counterweight to liberal, pro-democracy movements.


The strategy, said Robert Horvath, a specialist in Russian politics at Australia’s La Trobe University, involved the Kremlin “harness[ing] the energies and angers and grievances and resentments of the far-right” to shore up the power of its authoritarian regime.

Aimed at controlling dissent and consolidating power, this policy eventually led to far-right thugs – drawn from Russia’s thriving neo-Nazi hooligan underground – being used to attack and intimidate anti-Putin youth groups. Meanwhile, extreme-right groups gained validation and legitimacy, with their newfound political connections emboldening them and giving them a sense of impunity.

The most vivid example of the policy in action was the Kremlin’s relationship with Russki Obraz, a neofascist ultranationalist organisation whose name means “Russian Image.”

“This was a group which was sophisticated, which was building a national network and which had very serious connections with neo-Nazi killers,” said Horvath.

Between 2008-2009, the group – despite being deeply enmeshed in Russia’s neo-Nazi skinhead underground – worked closely with pro-Putin youth movements. Its supporters attacked other nationalists who defected to the anti-Putin coalition led by Alexei Navalny, the now-jailed opposition leader who is the Russian leader’s nemesis, and were given government grants to compile reports on liberal activist groups. 


Crucially, it was also given a long leash to operate in Russia’s tightly-controlled political sphere, with Russki Obraz’s senior figures appearing in televised political discussions alongside pro-Putin MPs, while the group’s rivals were harassed and repressed by the state. Most infamously, in 2009, the group was even allowed to stage a concert in central Moscow featuring the notorious Russian neo-Nazi band, Kolovrat – sending a powerful message of the regime’s tolerance of right-wing extremism that surprised and delighted hardened skinheads. 

“It was a triumph that was just that many neo-Nazi skinhead leaders were stunned by. They just couldn't believe that this was happening,” said Horvath. “At least one of them commented on social media at the time that this shows that a change is taking place within the regime, that they understand that we matter.”

But the relationship eventually became untenable when Russki Obraz became too hot to handle, after key figures in Russki Obraz were linked to a string of political killings.

In January 2009, Nikita Tikhonov, one of the group’s founders, shot dead prominent human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who had worked on prosecutions of neo-Nazis, and journalist Anastasia Baburova in central Moscow as they walked to a metro station after a press conference. 


The ensuing trials, which resulted in lengthy sentences for Tikhonov and his girlfriend, Yevgeniya Khasis, revealed that while Russki Obraz had worked to establish itself as a legitimate and legally political force, its armed militant wing BORN (Militant Organisation of Russian Nationalists) had operated as an extremist terror squad, violently targeting perceived enemies.

In 2015, Russki Obraz’s leader Ilya Goryachev was sentenced to life in jail for ordering the killings, along with three other murders - with court proceedings revealing that at the same time that Goryachev was reporting to his handlers in the Kremlin, he was ordering hits on political opponents.

But that didn’t spell the end for the Kremlin’s relationship with far-right groups, at home or abroad. Groups like the ultranationalist biker gang the Night Wolves, which has received Kremlin funding and hosted Putin as guest of honour at its rallies, has aggressively pushed Russian government propaganda and even taken up arms in Ukraine, reportedly being gifted land in Crimea in return for its help with the annexation.

Meanwhile, Russia has cultivated close relationships with far-right and populist politicians in the West – where Putin is viewed by many on the far-right as a staunch defender of a traditionalist, Christian European identity against the perceived threat of liberal and progressive values.

These friends of Russia in the West include prominent figures like Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Lega party, who has been photographed in a T-shirt showing the Russian leader, and France’s Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, who received large loans from Russian banks – although both have had to recently dial down their public admiration for Putin amid widespread outrage over the Ukraine invasion.

Nevertheless, experts say these relationships can help Russia’s interests by advancing a similar worldview to the Kremlin, proving a destablilising and disruptive presence in their own countries, and speaking out in support of Russian positions in international issues.

“The far-right is important in making that soft power work,” said Horvath.