Ilya Ponomarev arrives for our interview flanked by two bodyguards. He wears jeans and a sports jacket. His good humour and easy-going manner are so disarming that one almost forgets he espouses the armed overthrow of Vladimir Putin.
“In America they like smiling politicians,” Ponomarev shrugs, laughing. “In Russia they think it’s suspicious.”
Indeed, there is something slightly American about Ponomarev. The 48-year-old former member of the Russian parliament, the Duma, spent years in Boston and still has a US telephone number. “It’s more secure,” he explains.
Ponomarev was the only member of the Duma to vote against the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He has lived in exile in Kyiv since 2016 and spends a great deal of time in the US and Europe seeking support for his cause.
The Congress of People’s Deputies, which Ponomarev founded, counts 93 Russian deputies, mainly in Europe. It has drawn up a new constitution for Russia and even a blue and white flag which Ponomarev describes as “the Russian flag without blood”.
For the most part, Putin would rather drive political opponents into exile than have them assassinated, Ponomarev says. It is his dual role, as the representative of military as well as political factions, which endangers his life.
As the head of the political wing of an armed group, Ponomarev is sometimes compared to Gerry Adams. But people associate Adams with IRA terrorism, he says. “I would prefer a parallel with Gen Charles de Gaulle. We are the military vanguard against Putin.”
One year ago, Ponomarev oversaw the Irpin Declaration which united the Free Russia Legion, a contingent of president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s foreign legion, and the National Republican Army (NRA), a network of armed anti-Putin partisans inside Russia.
The Free Russia Legion started in February 2022. Ponomarev says it is the largest international force in Ukraine, with more than 1,000 soldiers in four battalions. “The Legion attracted deserters from the Russian military, Russian prisoners captured by the Ukrainians and Russian nationals who were living and working in Ukraine and who wanted to defend Ukraine.”
Ponomarev says he is in contact with six armed groups inside Russia, including the NRA, which claimed credit for the assassination on August 20th, 2022, of Darya Dugina. The NRA also killed the military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who fought on behalf of separatists in Donetsk.
“I had advance knowledge of the attack on Dugin,” Ponomarev says. The attack targeted Aleksandr Dugin, a leading advocate for the invasion of Ukraine, but killed his daughter instead. “Father and daughter were working together,” Ponomarev says. “Obviously Dugin was the priority, but she was a target too.”
A third armed group, the Russian Volunteer Corps, known by its Russian initials RDK, includes fighters who gravitated to Ukraine following the 2014 invasions of Crimea and Donbas. Some have documented pasts as neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
“These groups are usually pretty far right,” Ponomarev admits. “They are very different from the Legion, which has no ideological format. They are just radicals who want to fight. They’re always in the front lines. They’re a small number and are not well-managed by the overall command.”
Armed Russian exiles staged dramatic cross-border raids in March and May, and often claim responsibility for almost daily drone attacks inside Russia.
Ponomarev says the drone attack on the Kremlin in May was staged by a Russian group near Moscow, and that the attack last Saturday on Novgorod was also done locally.
Last Saturday’s attack destroyed a Russian bomber at the Soltsy-2 airbase near St Petersburg, almost 1,000 km from Kyiv. The Ukrainian Armed Forces also claimed credit for it.
Ponomarev says Ukraine is probably responsible for more of the drone attacks than the Russian exiles, but that the Free Russia Legion “has a very strong drone unit”. He organises drone deliveries to partisans inside Russia. “One of my Ukrainian friends earned $30 million [nearly €28 million] already this year producing drones. We are taking some of these drones and smuggling them into Russia.”
His allies inside concentrate on “ministries, government bureaucracy, propaganda guys, where the elite live,” Ponomarev says. “Military targets are less impactful than attacks on figureheads of the regime. Not necessarily assassination, but in general we want to create an atmosphere of vulnerability for the elite who are in charge of the war. There have been several high-profile attacks on warehouses and shopping malls owned by people very close to the regime. We’re sending a message that Putin cannot protect them, that he is a threat to them.”
Ukraine’s US and European allies have made it clear they do not want the weapons they are giving to Ukraine to be used inside Russia, out of fear that it will escalate the conflict.
“When I was starting this, I told everybody in Washington we were planning to do it,” Ponomarev says. Who does he mean by “everybody”? The White House? The CIA? The Pentagon? State Department?
“People. Everybody,” Ponomarev replies. “I said ‘These are our objectives and this is what we are planning to do. Please do not consider us terrorists’. They said from the beginning they were against it. They don’t want escalation and they would tell the Ukrainians we couldn’t do this, but the point was taken.” There was, he adds, a certain amount of winking at middle levels in the US administration.
The attitude of the Ukrainian government is different. Following another drone attack on the Kremlin at the end of July, Zelenskiy said, “Gradually the war is returning to the territory of Russia – to its symbolic centres and military bases, and this is an inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process.”
“In Ukraine, for a long time the dominant idea was that Russia should just collapse and we will dig a moat around it filled with crocodiles and we don’t care what happens inside Russia,” Ponomarev says. “The Ukrainians realised that without regime change in Russia the war would not end … There’s a similar process in the US and other countries. It is moving in that direction. Active resistance to armed struggle against Putin is receding. For a long time, US officials wouldn’t meet us in public places. Now they are warming up.”
When the RDK staged a cross-border raid in late May, its leader Denis Nikitin said the group used at least two US armoured vehicles and several Humvees, material which Ukraine has obtained as US military assistance.
“We are obviously getting weapons from the Ukrainians. Light-weight equipment such as rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades,” Ponomarev says. “Equipment is changing hands all the time. It gets captured and recaptured. More serious stuff needs to be procured.”
Ponomarev says the Russian exiles are receiving “Spetsnaz [special forces] grade training” from the Ukrainians “because the objective is to go to Moscow”.
Traditional opposition groups, including followers of the jailed dissident Alexander Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil and gas company who was imprisoned by Putin and now lives in London, are reluctant to embrace armed opposition.
“They think ‘The regime will fall and when it does, we will peacefully return and we will be peaceful leaders of Russia’. It’s an idiocy. Nobody gives power for free,” Ponomarev says. “Also, it’s immoral to say Ukrainians should pay with their blood for our freedom. People who do not participate in the resistance have no right to share in power in the future … What distinguishes me from other members of the Russian opposition is that they are sitting in their gardens and dreaming about the future, and we are taking action.”
President John F Kennedy used Cuban exiles to try to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs. George W Bush’s administration groomed a corrupt businessman called Ahmad Chalabi and his Freedom for Iraq Fighters to fight Saddam Hussein. Why should Ponomarev’s Congress and Legion succeed where such operations failed in the past?
“We are not co-operating with losers from the CIA,” Ponomarev says. He sees William Burns, the CIA director, and a former US ambassador to Moscow, as a leading proponent of negotiations with Putin. “He decapacitates the Agency completely. The rationale of Mr Burns is ‘Everything we tried screwed up so we should do nothing’. That is why he wants to stay away.”
As a politician in Russia, Ponomarev dreamed of transforming the Communist Party into something resembling British Labour. He thinks of himself as left-wing. Yet he co-operates with the RDK. Doesn’t association with far-right extremists taint his own undertaking?
“I was sitting in parliament with people worse than White Rex [the call sign of the RDK’s leader, Denis Nikitin]. They are internationally recognised war criminals, but that didn’t make me a war criminal. The fact is, White Rex is fighting against Putin. I don’t care about his past. He is fighting the paramount evil and main fascist of today. I don’t want to be friends with White Rex or build a political party with him … Churchill teamed up with Stalin, but that didn’t make him a Bolshevik.”