On April 29, Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency reported that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had detained 16 members of a “Ukrainian youth radical association” who were allegedly planning terrorist acts in several Russian cities using explosives.
The arrests were part of a special operation that nabbed suspects in Irkutsk, Chita, Tambov, Krasnodar and several other Russian cities. The suspects allegedly belong to MKU, which stands for “Youth Murder Cult” in Russian. Russia’s Investigative Committee claims the suspects received instructions on how to use explosives from Yegor Krasnov, a Ukrainian national from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro.
The arrests were the latest in a series that began in February, when three alleged MKU members were picked up in the Russian city of Voronezh in connection with beatings and extremist graffiti. In March, 14 alleged MKU supporters were arrested in the cities of Gelendzhik and Yaroslavl.
Calling these suspects “Ukrainians” or “Ukrainian radicals,” however, is highly misleading. No evidence has been produced showing that any of the suspects are Ukrainian citizens.
According to the Ukrainian counter-propaganda organization StopFake, the three suspects arrested in Voronezh in February – Roman Grebenshchikov, Ilya Shmelyov and Alexander Simonov – had ties to a Russian nationalist organization known as the “Russian Corps.” The group posted a statement on the Russian social media network VK acknowledging that the men had once been affiliated with its Voronezh chapter.
“The three did not have any sort of connection with pro-Ukrainian resources or organizations,” the Russian Corps statement read. “For a short time they were members of the Voronezh cell of RK (Russian Corps).”
StopFake also spoke to one of the Voronezh arrestees, Grebenshchikov, who denied having any ties to Ukraine or Ukrainian nationalists, or any knowledge of MKU, the group authorities alleged he was connected to.
StopFake found photos from Grebenshchikov’s VK profile showing him present at Russian nationalist rallies and displaying symbols typically associated with Russian, not Ukrainian, nationalists. In a February 18 story on the arrest of the suspects in Voronezh, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti included a video showing the various extremist materials allegedly found in the suspects’ possession. Those materials included Russian nationalist and German neo-Nazi symbols, as well as what appears to be a German edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but nothing bearing Ukrainian symbols of any kind.
The BBC Russian service also published a story on the arrests which included a photo of more extremist material allegedly found on the suspects arrested in Gelendzhik in March. Again, only general neo-Nazi or Russian nationalist items were on display.
Nevertheless, Russian state media routinely label the alleged MKU members later arrested as "Ukrainian neo-Nazis" or "Ukrainian radicals," even though they all appear to be Russian citizens. In one case, a Radio Sputnik headline refers to the suspects as "Ukrainians" even though there is no evidence to suggest this and the article doesn't mention anything about their citizenship or ethnicity.
What is the source of the Ukraine branding, then? Well, it goes back to Yegor Krasnov, a Ukrainian resident of Dnipro who is the purported founder of the MKU. Krasnov , 20, was arrested by Ukrainian police in Dnipro in January 2020 and has been in detention since. He is on trial for a series of violent attacks in Ukraine.
According to the April 29 RIA Novosti article, the FSB claimed that the 16 terror suspects they arrested were in contact with Krasnov, who gave them instructions to carry out bombings and other terrorist attacks. These also allegedly included instructions on how to make and employ explosives.
An investigation into the group by Current Time, a TV program produced by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in cooperation with the Voice of America (VOA), included a profile of Krasnov, in which former classmates and friends described him as a violent hooligan who “loved to fight.” One former classmate said that Krasnov had been committed to a psychiatric institution, possibly either for drug use or aggressive behavior. Another acquaintance claimed Krasnov had used methamphetamine.
According to Current Time, Krasnov had at least some access to the Telegram internet messaging service, through which the other suspects were able to correspond with him on a limited basis.
Krasnov appears to be the only link that any of the suspects, who are Russian citizens living in Russia, have with Ukraine. The RIA Novosti story on the recent arrests, as well as the earlier arrests, cites FSB interrogations as the source of the claims about Krasnov allegedly giving his contacts in Russia instructions.
The Daily Beast on April 30 quoted Alexander Verkhovsky, head of Moscow’s SOVA Center, which monitors extremist violence in Russia, saying that while it was possible far-right individuals in Ukraine “dared” like-minded counterparts in Russia to engage in increasingly serious acts of violence, Ukrainian state involvement is doubtful.
Verkhovsky told The Daily Beast: “We have plenty of our own Russian far-right radicals, who might be preparing nasty actions. They don’t need some arrested Ukrainian nationalist to tell them what to do.”
Further complicating the matter is that the FSB and Russian police have an established history of planting evidence on suspects, including drugs, weapons, explosives and extremist literature. Such incriminating “discoveries” are extremely common in raids against Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian residents of Crimea, which Russia has occupied since 2014.
In April, Vladislav Yesypenko, a Ukrainian Crimean working for RFE/RL, was arrested by the FSB and charged with weapons possession after being accused of spying for Ukraine. Yesypenko claimed authorities planted a grenade in his car and threatened him with death unless he signed a confession.
Without more information about the suspects in these MKU-related arrests, it is difficult to assess their true involvement in any plot. What is clear is that they were not “Ukrainians,” as Russian state media has repeatedly labeled them.