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Ukraine war: Meet the Russian exile 'trying' to overthrow Vladimir Putin

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By Stefan Weichert
Ilya Ponomarev
Ilya Ponomarev   -   Copyright  Credit: Stefan Weichert   -  

Ilya Ponomarev has long been a thorn in the side of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

From leading street protests over his re-election in 2012 to being the only MP to oppose Moscow's annexation of Crimea, Ponomarev's position is clear.

Only now it's more extreme, a consequence of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Exiled in Kyiv, the 47-year-old says he is a spokesman for the National Republican Army (NRA), an underground group that wants to violently overthrow the Russian leader. 

Among others, the NRA claims to be behind the car bomb that killed Darya Dugina, the daughter of ultra-nationalist Alexander Dugin.

“Obviously, the end game is regime change in Russia,” Ponomarev told Euronews from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. “You need to destroy the system so it does not repeat itself. That can be done only violently. There is no other way because the people around Putin will fight.”

However, experts have cast doubt on the existence of the NRA, saying there is little coordination of protests and attacks in Russia. 

Credit: AP/Investigative Committee of Russia
Debris at the site of the car bomb that killed Darya Dugina.Credit: AP/Investigative Committee of Russia

NRA 'is diverse and decentralised'

Russian-born Ponomarev, once a member of the Communist Party of Russia, served as an MP from 2007 to 2016. 

Before being exiled due to his opposition to Russia's land grab of Crimea, he had worked with Dmitry Medvedev, president from 2008-2012.

“I saw Medvedev as a window of opportunity, and I still think that it was, but when Putin asked him to swap back again, he agreed,” said Ponomarev, referring to Putin returning as president in 2012 after standing aside to avoid term-limit rules. “I think that it was possible to reverse Russia's path if Medvedev had stayed, but it didn’t happen and Russia continued on an irrevocable and irreversible path that we are seeing the consequences of now.”

Granted Ukrainian citizenship in 2019, Ponomarev says it became clear that working within the Russian system cannot change anything.

After the outbreak of war, he launched a news outlet called February Morning, which aims to give a voice to Putin's critics. 

Now he helps the NRA -- which he says consists of around 500 to 1,000 people and is diverse and decentralised to avoid infiltration -- with advice and assistance. 

He also claims to be helping Ukraine and has connections to other partisan groups operating in Russia.

“You know, the people who are criticising me [for not criticising Russia's leaders earlier and his links with Medvedev], they have done nothing radical, and they are doing nothing,” said Ponomarev.

“They have done nothing but wish. I have at least done everything possible to change the situation with all the tools that the system gave me.”

Credit: AP
In this Oct. 22, 2012 file photo, Russian police escort Ilya Ponomarev as they try to clear Bolotnaya Square of opposition protesters.Credit: AP

Russian elite 'needs to feel like they are in danger'

Ponomarev says part of his strategy is to split the Russian elite, arguing Russia's oligarchs are almost only interested in money and being safe. As long as supporting Putin is safer than supporting change, nothing will happen, he adds. 

Therefore he wants to make it unsafe for the Russian elite so that they will be ready to switch sides.

"They do not like what is happening with the war, but they are doing nothing because there is no real danger to their position," he said. "That needs to change.”

The next step, adds Ponomarev, is to make Russians feel they can hit the streets and protest. 

After any revolution, he believes there is a need for a transition government, tasked with strengthening the rule of law and implementing reforms.

Corrupt politicians and civil servants in all layers of society will have to be removed and replaced, he adds.

He also thinks leaders of any revolution, such as himself, refrain from running in any democratic elections that may follow.

“And I think that the people, like me, who are involved in the transition government should take an obligation, promising not to run after the transition period is over,” says Ponomarev. “I am definitely ready myself to make such an obligation.”

Credit: AP
Opposition activist Ilya Ponomarev, center with a loud-hailer speaks to protesters after the massive rally in Pushkin Square, Monday, March 5, 2012.Credit: AP

The NRA could be just 'a fantasy'

Experts, however, have cast doubt over whether the NRA is a fantasy.

"I am not fully convinced that the National Republican Army exist," said Sergey Radchenko, an expert on Russia from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"There are protests in Russia and attacks on recruitment offices and infrastructure, but I don't see much organisation to it. 

"It makes me think that the National Republican Army is not a reality, but maybe fantasy.

"There are non-state groups operating around the world, but I don't see any evidence yet that it is the case in Russia. 

"Everything is, of course, possible, but I haven't seen any evidence and it makes me suspicious.

"In absence of evidence, I am sceptical... I cannot rule out that they exist but it is not just true because Ponomarev says so. 

"We have to be cautious and that is the whole point."