Mystery bombing: the aftermath of an explosion at a café in St Petersburg on 2 April 2023, in which the prominent pro-war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky was killed. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
A mysterious group has claimed responsibility for recent attacks on pro-war figures in Russia. While it may not currently represent an organised opposition front, the Russian government faces a dilemma in how to respond.
In the first week of April, Russian and international media published a piece of news that sounded rather surprising in the political landscape in Russia of the last few years – prominent pro-war blogger (or military correspondent as Russian state channels tend to call him) Vladlen Tatarsky had been assassinated while giving a talk at a café in St Petersburg.
Tatarsky used to be a petty criminal incarcerated in Ukraine; however, after the 2014 conflict he managed to escape. In 2022, with the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, he became a highly visible figure in the official landscape of Russian propaganda (so-called ‘Z-bloggers’), being an effective instrument for promoting pro-war ideas to his half-a-million followers on Telegram.
According to some reports, Tatarsky was also considered ‘close’ to (or according to other testimonies at least acquainted with) the leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and was becoming a regular fixture on official Russian propaganda outlets such as the RT channel and the Solovyov.Live channel, where Tatarsky had become a co-host.
The attack therefore had a clear symbolic message – Tatarsky was targeted as a voice who glorified the ideology of violence adopted by the Russian state. Some analysts have also suggested that due to Tatarsky’s alleged links to Prigozhin and the fact that the attack was committed in a café affiliated with him, it could have been a direct message to the head of the Wagner Group. After the incident, the FSB quickly arrested the perpetrator – a feminist and left-wing activist, Darya Trepova. While initially it was unclear whether Darya was the main individual involved or acted on behalf of someone else, a few days after her arrest, a group called the National Republican Army claimed responsibility for the assassination. They also called for support for Darya – while they did not confirm her direct role in the attack, calling her a ‘regime hostage’, they nevertheless acknowledged her role as a protest and anti-war activist figure.
The National Republican Army is a rather mysterious element of the new Russian reality. It first became known after the killing of Darya Dugina – the daughter of another leading Russian propagandist, Alexander Dugin. Prominent Russian opposition figure Ilya Ponomarev, who is currently living in Ukraine, claimed at the time that the National Republican Army was responsible for this act. Until the attack on Dugina, the group was unknown. So what is it, and can it be considered an effective force of resistance?
If the National Republican Army is real, then the silence of the government and security services makes sense – they do not want the public to think that there is a force of resistance capable of committing high-profile attacks
At the moment, there is very little information about the National Republican Army or mention of it in Russian media or social media. Moreover, a search of Russian-language websites reveals comments and blog entries from supposed ordinary citizens expressing their doubts about the true nature of the group, claiming that it may be a hoax at best or a fabrication of the Russian security service, which would allow it to take even harsher measures in suppressing domestic opposition to the war.
The group has an account on Telegram called ‘Rospartisan’, and it acts as a collective voice of all resistance movements that emerged after the beginning of the war. It has more than 30,000 followers. The channel is dedicated to news related to all actions of resistance, not just across Russia but also on the frontline (for example, Russian volunteer corps – a group of Russians (including army defectors) who joined Ukrainian forces to fight for Ukraine). One can see footage made by members of the corps from the battlefield, as well as their interactions with civilians. The channel also covers news about ‘partisan’ acts across the country – such as setting military offices on fire or derailing trains. Most of them are presented as independent acts of popular resistance. This suggests that despite the claims of official Russian propaganda that the war enjoys overwhelming support among ordinary citizens, in reality there is a tendency for growing discontent and an intention to express this through more active (and sometimes violent) means. The account is also actively disseminating calls for people to engage in any form of resistance available to them – from ‘partisan’ actions to financial support for those who protest, or simply speaking up.
While it is hard to say with certainty whether the group and the account are a genuine example of resistance, there are a few arguments to support this. First, while there are many instances of partisan actions presented by the channel, the National Republican Army does not attempt to claim responsibility for them. If this was a government project aimed at, for example, detecting people who disagree with the war, it would have made more sense to present the group as more powerful and popular than it really is.
Another point that might indirectly confirm that the group is real is that despite the fact that the National Republican Army claimed responsibility for the attacks on Dugina and Tatarsky, FSB never addressed this claim. It essentially ignored the group’s existence, blaming Ukrainian government and Russian opposition members (such as Alexey Navalny’s Fund Against Corruption) for organising the attacks. If the group was meant to be used as a justification for the implementation of counterterrorism laws, all the government would have needed to do is to designate it as a terrorist organisation and arrest people affiliated with it. Arguably, the government would have found support for this among the general population – a large proportion of Russian citizens lived during or grew up with memories of Chechen and far-right violence, and a ‘terrorist scare’ would definitely resonate with them.
However, this was not done, and the National Republican Army simply does not exist in government narratives. Cases of arson attacks on military offices, or even the assassinations of Dugina and Tatarsky, are viewed as independent acts of ‘terrorism’ that are not connected with any specific group. If the National Republican Army is real, then the silence of the government and security services makes sense – they do not want to let the public think that there is a force of resistance that is capable of committing high-profile attacks.
It may be that in overreacting to the National Republican Army’s actions, the Russian government will end up losing the remains of its popular support
If the group is indeed real, does it have the potential to become a real force of opposition against the Russian government? Most likely not. The fact that it has only claimed two attacks over the last year means that the group most likely does not have enough resources to launch a full-scale campaign. It is also likely that it does not have an organised structure or leadership, and possibly represents merely a loose movement rather than an actual organisation.
Despite the fact that the National Republican Army does not seem to have the potential to change the situation in Russia by pressuring the government, it does appear to have been successful in achieving one of the aims of most organisations that use political violence as their method of fighting – namely, provoking the government to overreact in such a way as to discredit it in the eyes of the population. After the attack on Tatarsky, the Russian Parliament as well as official media actively discussed measures to prevent similar attacks from happening. Some of the ideas included pursuing opposition figures who moved abroad and forcibly bringing them back to Russia for prosecution, ‘accidental’ killing of ‘terrorists’ during arrests, and bringing capital punishment back. According to the BBC, crimes such as setting military offices on fire (which used to be an administrative crime) are now increasingly viewed as acts of terrorism, with an average imprisonment term of 15 years.
These examples of the government’s overreaction serve as proof that it is indeed aware of the scale of the Russian population’s disillusionment with the war and fears a more active resistance or potential rebellion. And it may be possible that in responding to the National Republican Army’s actions in such a manner, the Russian government will end up losing the remains of its popular support.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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