The Freedom of Russia Legion: a growing source of concern for Putin
A new, unlikely group of fighters has formed in Ukraine to assist the Ukrainian military in its fight against Putin: The Freedom of Russia Legion.
This group is made up of defectors of the Russian Armed Forces along with Russian and Belarusian volunteers who do not have military training but wish to do their part to help Ukraine.
The Freedom of Russia Legion was formed in March 2022 from a Russian army company consisting of around 100 soldiers who voluntarily defected to the Ukrainian side when the war broke out.
To identify themselves, members of the legion use a white-blue-white flag on their sleeves and a distinctive patch their wear to represent themselves, as seen here.
In an article in Georgia Today about the Freedom of Russia Legion, the author talks about the significance of the blue and white flag for group members.
The author of the article wrote that the blue and white flag is the Russian flag without the red, "Many in the opposition see the Russian flag as a sign of imperialism, militarism, and authoritarianism, the red bar being a key part of this."
In March 2022, the first volunteers for the Freedom of Russia Legion began their preliminary training with instruction from members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
In May, the Berliner Zeitung reported that The Freedom of Russia Legion was fighting on the frontline with the Ukraine Armed Forces in the Donbas. The German publication also wrote that the group also organizes sabotage acts and arson inside Russia.
The Freedom of Russia Legion first caught the general public's eye when Igor Volobuyev, the former vice-chairman of Gazprombank, shared that he had joined the Legion of Freedom of Russia and gave an interview about his choice to The Guardian.
The legion's primary goals are to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine and take down Vladimir Putin's regime.
Not much is known about this group, but The Odessa Journal recently published a conversation between Mark Feygin, a Russian human rights activist, and Aleksey Arestovich, the adviser to the head of the President's Office. Arestovich shared information about the work of the legion.
Photo: By Yeremeev.d - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=118076053
Arestovich told the publication that The Freedom of Russia Legion's numbers are growing, saying, "The number of applications to the Legion, including the Russian army, is off the scale."
Photo: Freedom of Russian Legion/YouTube
On May 4, a Russian representative of the group spoke at a press conference organized by Ukraine's Interfax news agency about the kind of recruits the Freedom of Russia Legion is receiving: "There are a lot of people who want to (join)."
Another legion member said, "Our legion also includes our Belarusian brothers. Our legion includes active and retired military of the Russian Federation and otherwise. People come from different countries to fight the Putin regime."
However, joining The Freedom of Russia Legion isn't easy. Arestovich told The Odessa Journal they have a thorough screening process for potential candidates who even have to undergo a double polygraph test to be admitted into the legion.
Arestovich also told the publication that he believes that the Kremlin is fully aware of the existence of the legion, and Putin may be getting nervous.
U.S. News reported that the unit had posted multiple videos on its Telegram channel that show The Freedom of Russia Legion soldiers capturing Russians operating in Ukraine.
On May 9, at the end of his speech, Putin said, "For Russia, for victory." Arestovich told The Odessa Journal that he believes that was Putin's way of taking over The Freedom of Russia Legion's slogan, which is "For Russia, for freedom."
Arestovich went on to say, "...no matter how Vladimir Vladimirovich tries to block the slogan that is already spreading throughout Russia, an attempt to oppose something to it – it seems that the legion has already got everyone and everyone in the Kremlin are afraid of it."
Some believe that the existence of the Freedom of Russia Legion is a sign that the Kremlin is losing control over Russians. According to Georgia Today, blue and white "Legion" graffities have been seen throughout Russia.
As has the "L" symbol, which also represents the group, and it is painted in protest to the "Z" symbol, which represents the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine.
The Kremlin is considering a new law that seems to indicate that the Freedom of Russia Legion is making Putin nervous after all. According to various news outlets, Russia may approve a law that would sentence battlefield defectors and those who volunteer to fight for foreign armies to twenty years in prison.
According to U.S. News, the bill was introduced in the State Duma, a lower chamber of Russia's legislature. It would apply additional penalties to those who participate "in an armed conflict, hostilities or other actions with the use of weapons and military equipment on the territory of a foreign state for purposes contrary to the interests of the Russian Federation."
U.S. News reported that those who understand the inner workings of the Kremlin told the publication that "...the bill reflects growing concern among Russian elites of the rates of defectors on the battlefield in Ukraine, along with reports that hundreds are volunteering to join specialized units in the Ukrainian army composed of disaffected Russian citizens."