The commander of the Freedom of Russia Legion says his fighters are planning another cross-border raid into Russia and are looking to take advantage of the chaos inside the Kremlin after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny.
“There will be more surprises in the next month or so,” Caesar, a spokesman for the anti-Putin paramilitary group, said in an interview with observers in Kiev. “This is our third operation. After that there is a fourth, and a fifth. We have ambitious plans. We want to release all our territories.”
The legion, made up of around 200 Russian military volunteers, attacked in May and early June. It occupied border villages near the Russian city of Belgorod, engaged the Russian army, and captured 10 Russian soldiers. Two members of the anti-Kremlin militia were killed, Caesar said.
He described the recent raid near the town of Shebekino as a “local attack and reconnaissance operation”. Caesar, who moved to Ukraine when the full-scale invasion of Moscow began, said he packed his Russian passport. “The border guards ran. No one will show it,” he joked.
A former fitness coach from Sochi and St Petersburg, Caesar’s real name is Maximillian Andronnikov. Critics have derided the legion as a gimmicky PR project run by the capable Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov. Russian state media have called 49-year-old Caesar an extremist and a Nazi. Prosecutors accused him of crimes including treason.
He acknowledged that his militia can only act with the help of the Ukrainian military but said that once on Russian territory they make their own independent decisions. The legion’s armored vehicles were mostly seized from Russian stocks captured in Ukraine, he said. He added that the Kremlin’s reports of heavy losses among his guerrillas were ridiculous and exaggerated, saying: “They dressed the corpses of Ukrainians in uniforms and put them on TV. We look different. It was a stupid lie.”
There have been accusations that the legion and another paramilitary force operating in Ukraine, the Russian Volunteer Corps, have connections to far-right organizations. Caesar was once a member of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), an ultranationalist group that publicly opposes Putin but has also fielded pro-Russian fighters since 2014.
Speaking to observers, Caesar called himself a “constitutional monarchist”. He said he admired Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and emphasized that the legion’s fighters included people with left and right views, as well as disaffected supporters of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader in Russia who was poisoned by the FSB spy agency and is now in prison. .
“We are a prototype of the future Russian society. There are different views,” said Caesar. He was angry at the Kremlin’s bombing of civilians. The legion “fought and died” for the future of Ukraine as well as Russia , he said.
“It’s a common struggle, a common tragedy,” he said.
Caesar said that Prigozhin’s revolt weakened Putin. He said that the mercenary leader of Wagner originally intended to arrest and remove the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and commander in chief, Valery Gerasimov, last month, when he began an armed uprising.
The FSB learned of Prigozhin’s intentions and moved the pair from Rostov-on-Don, the military command of Russia’s southern district. After capturing the southern city without meeting resistance, Prigozhin “improvised” and sent an armored column toward Moscow, Caesar said.
Prigozhin’s whereabouts are currently unknown. As part of an agreement he was supposed to move to Belarus, together with Wagner fighters who refused to sign contracts with the Russian defense ministry. On Thursday, however, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, said Prigozhin was in St Petersburg, where officials apparently raided his mansion. They discovered weapons, money, gold bars, wigs and fake passports.
Caesar speculated that Prigozhin had escaped punishment after returning his armored column because he had kept it. compromise or compromising material on Putin. “I have no respect for Prigozhin. He and Putin share the same values. Prigozhin was very charismatic and appealed to ultra-patriots who wanted to fight to the end. They believe that more extreme methods will bring them victory. It’s not realistic.”
Sitting in a cafe in Kyiv, he predicted the collapse of the Putin regime by the end of 2024. It is now “cracking and unstable”. He said that there was sadness within the Russian military, due to the fact that many “unscrupulous” soldiers from the provinces joined because they were broke without being paid. “There is a big money problem,” he said.
Wagner’s disbandment boosted Ukraine’s prospects on the battlefield, he argued. “Wagner is the most capable outfit in the Russian military. I fought with them at Bakhmut. They almost succeeded in capturing the city. Their withdrawal will demoralize the Russian army.” He continued: “I am 100% sure that the counter-offensive in Ukraine will succeed.”
Caesar predicted an angry Putin, whom he described as a small and cowardly “criminal boy”, who tried to intimidate his opponents into submission, but retreated every time he was confronted with force.
“He humiliated and broke the Russian population, playing with their best instincts. They became stupid and aggressive. He told them that they live badly because of the west rather than the truth – that their bad situation in life is the result of theft and mafia government in Moscow,” he said.
After 23 years in power, Putin has become paranoid, fearful and “like Stalin in his last years”, he suggested. The only way to get rid of him is to knock him down with weapons, he said. Political dialogue is futile because of Putin’s willingness to crush weaker opponents. He dismissed Russian liberals as “dreamers” who shunned violence and lived in comfortable exile.
The commander compared his small band to the “small Finnish army” that fought bravely in 1939-40 against the “Red Bear”, during the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland. “We represent the best, bravest, smartest part of Russia,” he said.
He claims to have met some local citizens during his brief foray, after they were evacuated. The legion enjoys support from many Russians fed up with Putin’s rule, he said.
And how did it feel when he crossed the international border last month and briefly returned to his homeland? “I enjoyed it,” he said.