In late May, an alliance of anti-Putin partisans used Ukrainian territory to launch a stunning incursion into western Russia. Spearheaded by the Russian Volunteer Corps, or RVC, and its leader Denis Kapustin, a wanted neo-Nazi and ex-soccer hooligan, the assault exposed just how vulnerable Russia had become to attacks since its invasion of Ukraine.
For years, Kapustin has maintained public links with two notorious American neo-Nazis: Robert Rundo, the founder of the street fighting gang Rise Above Movement, and Christopher Pohlhaus, an ex-Marine and leader of a group that terrorizes drag events in the U.S.
While Kapustin has been a regular fixture for years among European extremists, he gained minor popularity among American neo-Nazis when he started co-hosting a podcast in January 2021 with Rundo, a Charlottesville riot defendant now facing extradition to the U.S. from Romania. On the multiepisode show, the two men — avid mixed martial artists — discussed the benefits of “active clubs,” which are essentially fascist fight clubs that have sprouted up all over the U.S.
But Kapustin, who also goes by his call sign “White Rex” (his personal MMA brand) or uses the last name “Nikitin,” has contacts that go further into stateside neo-Nazism.
In July 2021, he also appeared in another two-and-a-half hour podcast with Pohlhaus, a four-year veteran of the Marine Corps who only months ago, with a revolver strapped to his hip, led his so-called Blood Tribe in a protest of a drag event outside Akron, Ohio. The relationship appears ongoing: Pohlhaus has told his followers on the Telegram app in recent weeks that he wants to help his friend “Denis” in Ukraine and plans to travel there to establish a neo-Nazi pipeline of volunteer soldiers to the cause.
In the wake of Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny against President Vladimir Putin’s regime weeks ago, Kapustin illustrates just how radical some of the faces of armed opposition to Putin really are. Following RVC’s cross-border operations, which featured American-supplied Humvees and other armored vehicles, reports rightly pointed out that the RVC and its politics could provide a boost for Russian propagandists who frequently accuse Kyiv of being a kind of Fourth Reich.
Mostly composed of Russian ultranationalists with the stated goal of overthrowing the Russian Federation, the RVC is undeniably affiliated with the far right, with members often seen wearing patches with neo-Nazi symbols. Kapustin is also a known figure to German authorities, who allegedly had him banned from the European Union’s Schengen area for his violent neo-Nazism and connections to the extremist MMA scene. The Ukrainian government, for its part, has repeatedly maintained that the RVC isn’t officially part of its war effort or under its control, though the government admitted that it cooperates with and feeds intelligence to the controversial Russian partisans.
Pohlhaus, known to his followers as “The Hammer,” has recently emerged as one of the more public and militant figures in the world of online American neo-Nazism. With confirmed links to Riley June Williams, the January 6 attacker who allegedly stole a laptop from Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office, Pohlhaus moved to Maine last year and began building a property for an all-white community where his Blood Tribe could “train.”
This year, Pohlhaus and his group made headlines for twice showing up to drag events in Ohio and allying with NSC-131, another underground neo-Nazi group based in New England that recently threatened a New Hampshire drag story hour. At his last Ohio protest in April at a fundraiser for LGBTQ+ youth in Columbus, Pohlhaus, who never saw combat as a Marine, paced with his masked followers as they waved a swastika flag and did the “Sieg Heil” salute to eventgoers.
Though he previously showed little interest in the war in Ukraine, Pohlhaus told his followers this week, in both an interview on an underground neo-Nazi podcast and in a lengthy message on Telegram, that now was the time to join the war and help neo-Nazis like Kapustin.
“I will be going personally with a squad of mostly vets who have committed to the task,” Pohlhaus wrote in a message viewed thousands of times on Telegram, explaining that “if everything goes correctly,” he would become the “[neo-Nazi] liaison for the anglosphere in Ukraine.”
In almost daily statements, Kapustin and the RVC publicly ask for recruits with military experience to “join the corps” and provide forms for direct contact to their recruiters through Telegram. (The RVC press account on Telegram has not replied to The Intercept’s requests for comment about links with Pohlhaus and the Blood Tribe.)
“We see the glorious opportunity in this conflict,” said Pohlhaus. “Because the American military is staying out of it, we get the chance to participate [under] OUR banner.”
Though Pohlhaus has been known for grandstanding online, he is an extremist who translates his words into activism: He once organized a national counterprotest on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and explained how to hypothetically use sniper attacks on the food supply chain in a streamed video.
He told The Intercept that his pledge to join the fighting in Ukraine is serious.
“I love Denis and I want to do everything I can to help him succeed,” Pohlhaus wrote in a text message. “It’s going to probably take us a couple years to be there equipped.”
He claimed that he will visit Ukraine to assess the situation firsthand.
“Of course,” he said. “A vacation.”
Whether Pohlhaus would be allowed entry into Ukraine is another question. With an ongoing civilian flight ban in Ukraine, Pohlhaus would have to enter the country through bordering nations like Poland, the usual border of entry for foreign volunteers, or Romania, a country that has recently shown a willingness to arrest extremists from abroad. Both countries are in the NATO alliance, with policing and intelligence apparatuses that cooperate with U.S. authorities.
The Ukrainians, for their part, have shown very little interest in allowing neo-Nazis like Pohlhaus to join their war effort. As far back as October 2020, Ukrainian intelligence made a public show of deporting two American members of neo-Nazi terrorist group Atomwaffen Division. Both men (one of whom was a Marine dropout) were attempting to join elements of the country’s military efforts in the eastern Donbas region, which at the time was the site of trench warfare with pro-Russian forces.
Kacper Rekawek, an expert on the flow of foreign fighters to the war in Ukraine and a nonresident research fellow at the Counter Extremism Project, says that while there are neo-Nazis from abroad in Ukraine, the problem shouldn’t be overblown.
“It’s certainly not as bad as the Russian propaganda wants us to believe,” said Rekawek. “The caution is warranted, and what I see is there is excitement amongst those far-right types, online and offline.”
According to Rekawek, there are very few neo-Nazi foreigners fighting on the front lines, while groups like CasaPound in Italy, another fascist and nationalist political organization, have sent “observation” missions to Ukraine.
“Some of them take some supplies, they’re usually medical, or some tactical gear, but of course, not weapons,” Rekawek said, who added that “talk of a pipeline” of neo-Nazis into the war is exaggerated. While groups like the RVC have called for new recruits, non-Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking foreigners who once joined the war in droves, regardless of political ideology, don’t typically last on the front lines, nor can they be trained as effectively for combat.
“The capacity of these guys to offer meaningful change on the front lines is limited,” said Rekawek, referring to far-right travelers operating within the Ukrainian war effort. “These organizations are no charity, they’re not there to train you.”
There were initial fears among counterterrorism experts that the war in Ukraine could potentially attract a global movement of neo-Nazis, leading to the formation of an Islamic State-like network. But a year and half into the war, most authorities acknowledge that Ukraine hasn’t yet become a destination for the far-right movement.
Nonetheless, American law enforcement officials have voiced serious concerns about people like Pohlhaus traveling to Ukraine, fighting in the war, and then coming home. At the outset of the invasion in March 2022, an internal Customs and Border Protection report warned that American extremists interrogated at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York before their departure flights were on their way to “join the conflict.” The bulletin openly wondered what kinds of skills those types of “foreign fighters” could learn in Ukraine that could then “proliferate” in “U.S.-based militia and white nationalist groups” once they returned home.
Whatever the outcome of his latest call to volunteer for the conflict, or if it’s simply a bluff to attract more funding to his personal cause, Pohlhaus acknowledged it could be a while before the Blood Tribe appears in Ukraine. He told his followers that it would take time to pool resources and even vehicles in order to be autonomous on the front lines.
“At the end of the day, this is very much Ukraine’s issue,” said Rekawek, who thinks that far-right elements within the Ukrainian military structure could be a problem when it comes to European Union or NATO membership for the country. “It’s up to Ukraine to call the shots. And it will certainly be an issue, but further down the line.”