Who is Ilya Ponomarev, the Russian anti-war renegade who went into exile in Ukraine? | News of war between Russia and Ukraine
Ilya Ponomarev was once a member of the Russian parliament, an unruly liberal who was tolerated by the leadership. Today, he is on a mission to kill Vladimir Putin and his aides.
“They should be finished with an aspen stake through their hearts,” he wrote in his memoir, Does Putin Have to Die?: The Story of Russia’s Becoming a Democracy After Its Defeat to Ukraine.
In exile in Ukraine since 2016, Ponomarev is the political leader of the Russian Freedom Legion, a volunteer militia thought to include around 1,600 Russian dissidents and defectors using pinprick tactics to Russian troops to do worse with the goal of one day marching on Moscow.
To some, he cuts a maverick, believable figure. The 48-year-old compares himself to Charles de Gaulle, the French military leader who led his country’s resistance against the Nazis from exile in World War II and later became president.
Who is the one who has reported to Putin, the president who will run again next year, a nightmare?
Who is Ponomarev?
A self-confessed “liberal communist”, Ponomarev comes from an elite background, his mother having once sat in parliament, his grandfather a former Russian ambassador to Poland.
Born in Moscow, the physics graduate started out as a tech entrepreneur, transferring his skills to the oil and gas industry. In his 20s, he worked with Yukos Oil, then chaired by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch now in exile in London.
As he explains in his book, he later worked with a TV company, almost striking a business deal with CNN that was deleted by Putin. He was so frustrated that he decided to enter politics.
In 2007, at the age of 32, he entered the Duma, elected on the ticket of Just Russia, a social-democratic party within the “systemic opposition” approved by the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, Ponomarev stuck his neck out, invoking the epithet “crooks and thieves” for the ruling party that had previously been popular with Alexey Navalny, the leader of the opposition now behind bars.
In 2012, he and fellow party member Dmitry Gudkov were heavily involved in the “white ribbon” street protests against Putin, denying the alleged rigging of the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections The following year, he refused to support a law banning “gay propaganda”.
However, Ponomarev definitively crossed the Rubicon when he voted against the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
He was caught on camera, refusing to stand and applaud when Putin referred to “national traitors” – a term used by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf – in a keynote speech.
That image was printed on large anti-government street banners that also featured Navalny; Boris Nemtsov, who would later be assassinated; and other dissenters with the words “Alien among us” emblazoned below.
By 2016, he went into exile in Ukraine.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in early 2022, he has positioned himself as the public face of Russians outside of Ukraine, speaking not only for the Russian Liberation Legion (FRL) in Ukraine but also the National Republican Army (NRA), a secret network of partisans allegedly operating inside Russia.
Ponomarev also founded a TV channel against the Russian language during the war, called February Morning, referring to when the war started. He used it as a platform to announce the NRA’s claim of responsibility for last year’s murder of Darya Dugina, the daughter of one of Putin’s close political allies, on the outskirts of Moscow. US intelligence had blamed the car bombing on Ukrainian forces.
However, within Russia, it is still relatively unknown.
“Average Russians don’t know much about what Ponomarev is doing right now because there is heavy propaganda, and it is not in Putin’s interests to popularize or publicize him,” said Natia Seskuria, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. – established think tank.
What is the Russian Liberation Legion?
The FRL is one of two Russian organizations working inside Ukraine to bring down the Putin government. The other is the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC). Although both have the same goal, they are different in terms of ideology. The RVC is led by a known Nazi near the local Azov regiment, an ultra-nationalist volunteer military unit.
Last May, the FRL and the RVC shocked the world with their cross-border attacks in the Belgorod region of western Russia. This was the first time that partisans entered Russia during the Ukrainian war. Footage of the attacks showed a Russian official lying face down in a pool of blood next to Russian passports at a border checkpoint in the town of Grayvoron.
Ponomarev said that Ukrainian military intelligence is supporting his coup attempts.
This year, he said he was involved in a drone attack on the Kremlin, saying his group had helped bring contraband across the border. He has also suggested he was involved in the murders of war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky and pro-Kremlin novelist Zakhar Prilepin.
But many are treating his claims with skepticism.
“He has no experience in military or covert operations. It is entirely up to the Ukrainians. “Ukraine is probably very happy for him to try to get credit,” said Roland Oliphant, the Telegraph’s senior foreign correspondent who has reported from Moscow for a decade.
The FRL is led by the Congress of People’s Deputies, a shadow parliament of sorts that Ponomarev helped set up. Based in Poland with members inside and outside of Russia, it hopes that the Putin government will fall and is working on a transition plan and a new constitution.
Among the Congress leaders is Mark Feygin, a former lawmaker and lawyer who represented the female punk band Pussy Riot, against Putin. But there are no big names on the body, such as Navalny and the political activist Garry Kasparov, a chess master, who do not like the violent tactics of the FRL.
Should Putin be worried?
Ponomarev hopes to raise an army that can march on Moscow. Could he succeed where Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin failed?
The late Russian mercenary leader, who led the invasion of Ukraine but fell out with Russia’s military leaders, staged a surprise coup against the Kremlin in June, seizing control of the country’s military headquarters. Russia in Rostov-on-Don. He quickly put down the rebellion, moving to Belarus before dying in a mysterious plane crash two months later.
“Prigozhin’s power was that he had these Russian national credentials. He had led a force in Ukraine. It was clear that he wanted to fight. He was clearly not a national traitor. I think that’s very important to the Russians,” Oliphant said.
Located on enemy territory, Ponomarev has a bit of a PR problem.
As Oliphant said, he does not have elite support to mount a coup, especially within the security services.
“Are any of these people in the FSB [Federal Security Service] and FSO [Federal Protective Service] and a whole series of other groups are going to make a coup on behalf of this self-proclaimed liberal who fled to Ukraine?”
According to Seskuria, the Kremlin has quickly buried memories of Prigozhin’s coup.
“A lot of things have changed, and the regime has become more ruthless,” she said. “The stakes are so high that I really don’t think Russians are ready now to speak out.” or go out into the streets and protest.”
Now on Russia’s “terrorist” list, Ponomarev has turned himself into a highly visible target. But it is unlikely that he will keep his “aspen tree” in the heart of the regime anytime soon.
“He probably thinks he’s going to ride into Moscow on the back of an American or Ukrainian tank,” Oliphant said. “I think that’s the only way to get there to be honest. “