Almost a decade after he was exiled, a former Russian statesman has emerged from the shadows this week as a new thorn in the side of the Kremlin.
In a shocking televised address from Kyiv last week, 47-year-old ex-politician Ilya Ponomarev debuted as a self-described messenger for what he says is an underground resistance movement operating in Russia, the National Republican Army. Ponomarev read the group’s so-called manifesto on a Kyiv-based TV channel he founded seven months ago, called February Morning, in which they claimed responsibility for the car bomb that killed Darya Dugina, the daughter of Russian nationalist and staunch Putin ally Alexander Dugin.
“The activists chose a sacred figure of Russian fascism and that’s not up to me to criticize the target of their deed, ” Ponomarev said in an interview with The Daily Beast, claiming that he’s been in contact with the “resistance fighters” since April. Besides passing their messages along, Ponomarev said his “job is to provide commercial support” to the group as needed.
Ponomarev’s connection to the alleged partisan movement is murky, and he hasn’t been able to provide evidence that they had a role in the attack on Dugina. But that hasn’t stopped a wave of press coverage spotlighting Ponomarev’s allegations and fueling skepticism that Russian citizens could be behind the car bomb incident. (Russia has since pinned the attack on a Ukrainian operative, though Kyiv has denied any responsibility.)
“We have been receiving videos and text messages from the Russian rebels about their actions nearly every day,” Ponomarev said. “They throw Molotov cocktails at military draft offices, blow up railroads, pop tires of cars with Russian pro-war symbols and attack activists who were collecting money for the war.”
Ponomarev’s associate at February Morning, Aleksey Baranovsky, a former supporter of ultra far-right organizations in Russia, told The Daily Beast that the media group received messages from the National Republican Army within an hour of the attack on Dugina in Moscow. He claimed that the group had asked Ponomarev to represent them and share their manifesto, in which they promised that “those who do not resign their power will be destroyed by us.”
“The initiative came from the group. They acted absolutely autonomously. We do not call them terrorists, they are an army of rebels,” Baranovsky told The Daily Beast. He said that about 10 employees of the channel gathered for a meeting with Ponomarev on Sunday to discuss his address. “He read the statement that we had received and commented on it.”
Ponomarev first fled Russia in 2014 after being the only member of Russian parliament to vote against the annexation of occupied Crimea. He eventually settled in Kyiv, where he became the chief executive of a U.S. investment firm in the oil and gas industry in Ukraine, though without much success. He told The Daily Beast that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what prompted him to launch his media group, manned exclusively by Russian exiles living in Ukraine. “My war began on that day,” too, he told The Daily Beast.
Roman Popkov, the exiled former leader of Russia’s far-left National Bolshevik party, told The Daily Beast he’s convinced that the partisan group indeed exists. “I personally know maybe 10 people in the partisan movement in Russia… they are 20- to 25-year-old activists of both left and right political views,” he told The Daily Beast. “The war has changed Ponomarev a lot. He was reading the manifesto with a stony face—we are all different now, after seeing horrific violence and atrocities during this war.”
Some independent experts, however, have voiced skepticism about Ponomarev’s claims and reputation. A Moscow-based specialist in radical activist groups, Alexander Verkhovsky, suspects that the group is only an army in Ponomarev’s head.
“Of course, there are anti-war partisan groups in Russia. They throw Molotov cocktails, blow things up, but if they were united in some big army, they would have had at least some channel independent from Ponomarev on Telegram,” Verkhovsky told The Daily Beast. “But let’s see what else they do.”
Ponomarev’s long-time ally, ex-Russian MP Gennady Gudkov, however, said he had no doubts about a rebel movement consisting of Russian exiles in Ukraine, and that they might be linked to the partisan movement in Russia. “I could give you a guarantee that Ponomarev is not crazy and that he is not an agent of the Russian Federal Security Service, though there might be a power playing him in their interest,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast, referring to suspicions that Ponomarev’s so-called “partisan connections” are in fact undercover Kremlin operatives. “But I can also confirm that there are dozens of Russian exiles in Ukraine fighting the war against Putin’s army and that Ponomarev knows these guys well.”
Tetiana Popova, a Ukrainian politician and media expert, also has doubts about Ponomarev’s story. “We’ve known Ponomarev for many years, as a businessman mostly—we think that he might genuinely wish to see an armed rebel movement in Russia but his source can easily be a Russian Federal Security Service and the NRA could be their idea,” she told The Daily Beast. “Besides, we do not understand why Dugin’s family was chosen for a target. It is just a finger, not the hand of those fighting the war against Ukraine.”
Russia was quick to claim they had solved the case of Dugina’s assassination. On the eve of her funeral, the FSB accused a Ukrainian woman of carrying out the attack remotely from a Mini Cooper, alleging that she had brought her daughter along in the vehicle. “The whole thing looks like a badly staged show,” Popov said.
Whether or not the Russian “investigation” holds any water, Ponomarev says he is already taking heat from those who don’t buy his story or claim he’s become too “radical.” In his interview with The Daily Beast, Ponomarev complained that many of his long-time friends in the Russian opposition have turned their backs on him after his announcement, adding that he’s been kicked out of the Free Russia Forum scheduled to take place at the end of this month in Vilnius.
“All of them, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Yulia Latynina are afraid of dealing with me,” Ponomarev said. But he insisted he won’t let that stop him: “I am at war.”