Russians in Ukraine Preparing To Help Overthrow Putin—Opposition Leader

Volunteer Russian fighters battling their compatriots in Ukraine can be a vanguard in a future revolution to topple Vladimir Putin, a prominent opposition leader has said.

Ilya Ponomarev—a member of the Russian parliament from 2007 to 2016 and the only one to vote against the annexation of Crimea in 2014—told Newsweek Putin has set the stage for a "new Russian revolution" with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"In our situation, I think it's a must that we will face a violent protest and an armed protest, I think it would not happen without armed resistance," Ponomarev said.

An image posted by Freedom of Russia
An image posted by Freedom of Russia on Telegram. The group said it showed its fighters before a combat exit near Bakhmut, Donetsk in eastern Ukraine in October 2022. "For Russia! For freedom!" the caption said. Freedom of Russia/Telegram

"I think there is no chance that may happen. That's why we are preparing for this and that's why we're preparing military elements with Russians right now in Ukraine, which are fighting alongside the Ukrainian army on the frontlines...they're ready to go to Russia at the decisive moment."

Ponomarev—author of Does Putin Have to Die?: The Story of How Russia Becomes a Democracy after Losing to Ukraine—lives in Ukraine and served in a unit defending the country during the invasion's early days.

He said there are some 4,000 Russian nationals serving in the Ukrainian armed forces, several hundred members of dedicated Russian volunteer regiments.

"I am not just in touch with them, I am very actively integrated," Ponomarev said. "Right now on the front lines, there are several hundred. But in the preparation pipeline we are talking about thousands."

Russian volunteers in Ukraine Irpin Kyiv Putin
Soldiers of the Russian Legion "Freedom of Russia" walk down the streets after signing a declaration on cooperation and coordination of actions between volunteer units that are fighting against the Russian army in town of Irpin, near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on August 31, 2022. SERGEI CHUZAVKOV/AFP via Getty Images

Ponomarev made headlines earlier this year by publicizing the previously unknown anti-government National Republican Army guerrilla group, which claimed responsibility for the car bomb assassination of Darya Dugina, the daughter of influential far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin.

The NRA—of which there has been no independent verification—are not the only guerrilla group operating in Russia, Ponomarev said.

"We see every day several attacks happening in Russia; arson against military posts, acts of sabotage on railroads, a new wave that just started with the NRA was a series of hacking attacks on the most critical portions of government data," he said. "It's all happening."

Russian opposition leader Ilya Ponomarev Vladimir Putin
This file photo shows Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian parliament and a long-time critic of President Vladimir Putin. Ponomarev told Newsweek that revolution in Russia will happen in the coming year. Ilya Ponomarev

The NRA, he said, "are not the only ones we are working with, I am very actively talking with others. There is a group called Black Bridge, there is a group called the Militant Organization of Anarcho-Communists, there are right-wing groups in Russia and we are in contact with many of them."

"It's all grassroots," he said. "It's like franchises. There are certain principles and people are coming to them to be part of something, but many people do their attacks just on their own without any coordination. I would say that 50 percent of the attacks in Russia are being done without any coordination."

Such nascent campaigns inside Russia need manpower, Ponomarev said; hence his support for the European Union ban on tourist visas for Russians. "We need people to stay in Russia and fight," he said.

Russia is not yet on the brink of revolution, Ponomarev said, but is not far off. "I think it will happen next year," he said. "He's radicalized society very much, and that's why I made the prediction in March that this birthday he just had on October 7...this birthday would be his last," Ponomarev said of Putin. "I stand by this."

Putin's fall, when it comes, will be remembered as self-inflicted, the politician added. "I was thinking we had another 10 years, since Putin has secured his re-election, his reappointments through the amendments to the constitution. Financially, the Russia regime was well off. There were no significant threats to him within the society."

"I didn't think that he would invade Ukraine and put himself in such mortal danger. As soon as it started on February 24 I said that the final countdown has started."

Vladimir Putin pictured at Moscow residence Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on October 19, 2022. SERGEI ILYIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Further defeats in Ukraine—like the reported impending Russian flight from Kherson—may accelerate the process. "It's like the frog which is being boiled. The temperature is rising constantly but gradually."

"Territorial losses would be very impactful," he added. "The retreat from the Kharkiv region had its effect on the society, and that actually was the reason for mobilization...The loss of Kherson would have an even larger impact."

Ponomarev said he hopes for a democratic system to replace Putin's revanchist kleptocracy, abolishing the position of president and relying on "collective leadership." Ponomarev's stated goal is to help usher in the new system and then step back to make way for untainted successors.

Current elites surrounding Putin, he said, must not be allowed to be a part of the new Russia. "The majority of them don't want to change anything," Ponomarev said. "They still want just to bail themselves out...they're not questioning the origins of the system, and we should not allow them to preserve the system."

Ponomarev warned that the total collapse of Russia would be "dangerous and counterproductive for everyone," though added that republics like Chechnya may make plays for independence.

"We need to recreate Russia," he said. "We need to genuinely reset Russia, rebuild it from scratch."