The Moscow-born far-right militia leader who led a raid out of Ukraine into Russia has claimed he aimed to expose the country’s weak defences and inspire more compatriots to rise up against Vladimir Putin.

Denis Nikitin, a notorious extremist who heads the Russian Volunteer Corps, told the Financial Times that his Ukraine-based fighters had proved they could breach some of Russia’s most heavily guarded border areas. The incident, which lasted just a few hours on Thursday before the group retreated, prompted Russia’s president to cancel a planned trip and convene his security council.

Many details of the brazen stunt, mounted by extremists who claim to have the tacit support of Ukraine, remain unclear and unverified. Ukraine has denied directly supporting the group, while Russia has used the incident to bolster its claim that Nato is running a proxy war through far-right “terrorists”.

Nikitin, 38, a polyglot who also goes by the name Denis Kapustin and the nom de guerre Rex after his white nationalist clothing brand, White Rex, is a former mixed martial arts fighter with ties to neo-Nazis and white nationalists across the western world.

Russian authorities claimed the raid left two civilians dead and a child injured. Nikitin, in his first interview since the incursion, said a shootout occurred in one of the two villages his men had raided but was unaware of the casualties.

“The main thing was to remind Russians that you don’t have to live in shackles, put up with and participate in someone else’s war carrying out someone else’s will,” Nikitin said on Friday. “You can and must take up arms. We will support everyone who wants to remove these Kremlin usurpers from power.”

In the year since Putin ordered the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to strike deep behind enemy lines with drone attacks and daring sabotage operations.

But the Russian Volunteer Corps’ attack appeared to confirm that Russian guerrillas were prepared to take up Kyiv’s cause. Nikitin said many of the 45 men involved in Thursday’s attack were part of a partisan underground network based inside the country.

The attack has also exposed what Nikitin said was the “very poor state” of Russia’s defences in the heavily forested Bryansk region, which is subject to enhanced security measures.

“It’s a classic partisan attack in a classic place where it was really hard both for the Germans and [the USSR] to catch partisans in the Bryansk forests,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow defence think-tank. “Closing down the border there is very difficult.”

In a ceremony to honour local border units, Bryansk’s governor Alexander Bogomaz last month praised them for stopping “fighters from nationalist groups” and said local families treasured the guards’ green caps “like holy relics”.

“They have felt how defenceless they are,” Nikitin said. “We were running around and working in a border zone that should be under the strictest protection.”

Russian authorities have struggled to formulate a coherent response to the attack. In a video address on Thursday, Putin said “terrorists” were behind it and claimed the partisans had fired on a civilian Lada Niva car.

But Russia did not release any footage from the incident until a day later, allowing Nikitin’s group to dominate social media as they posed triumphantly in spotless combat fatigues next to a village post office and first aid station.

When Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) did finally release a video on Friday, it showed a Lada VAZ 2107 riddled with bullets but a Niva untouched — apparently contradicting Putin’s statements.

The attack was one of the most daring that pro-Ukrainian militias have carried out since the car bombing that killed the TV talking head Darya Dugina, whose father Alexander Dugin is a prominent far-right philosopher, in August last year.

Putin likened the attack in Bryansk region to Dugina’s murder, even scribbling her name by hand on the stack of notes for his speech.

Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the attack on Dugina and also attempted to distance itself from Thursday’s incident.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser in president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration, called it “a classic provocation” from Russia.

But Nikitin said Ukrainian authorities had signed off on the operation. “Yes, of course, this action was agreed, otherwise it couldn’t have happened,” he said.

“How do you imagine that I passed through the dark of night there? There are mined bridges, there are cameras, heat-seeking drones, there are hidden open observation points,” he added. “If I did not co-ordinate it with anyone [in Ukraine’s military] . . . I think we would simply be destroyed,” he said.

Born in Russia, Nikitin lived in Germany as a teenager and moved to Ukraine in 2017. In Kyiv he organised fight clubs for Russians, Ukrainians, and western neo-Nazis.

Those far-right activities earned him a 10-year ban from the Schengen zone in 2019, but he has remained active in Europe nonetheless.

“He’s still been active in far-right activity in Germany, France, Bulgaria and others, even though he himself he isn’t going to these countries,” Michael Colborne, a journalist and researcher at Bellingcat focused on the global far-right, told the FT.

Some Russian hardliners such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, called on Putin to increase security measures and declare martial law in border regions. Putin told his security council on Friday to find ways to protect security installations from “terrorists”.

The Russian president on Friday signed a decree mentioning martial law in Russia for the first time since the invasion. Though the decree only covers hypothetical measures for arms production in case martial law is declared, it indicates Putin might soon stop reassuring people that his “special operation” in Ukraine does not affect them.

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