Neo-Nazis, gaming and crypto: How Russia's war is financed from the shadows

ITV News has uncovered donations to the brutal Taskforce Rusich group via gaming platforms, in a 'clear-cut violation' of Western sanctions - with additional reporting from Dan Howells, Iggy Ostanin, and Andriy Glushko

Russian neo-Nazi fighters are using a computer games platform to raise money in Europe to help fund the war in Ukraine, in what specialist lawyers have called a “clear-cut violation” of western sanctions. 

An ITV News investigation has revealed how Taskforce Rusich, a paramilitary group blamed for the torture of Ukrainian prisoners of war and described as “non-human” by one of its victims, is using a Dutch gaming platform to circumvent financial blocks and funnel funds to the front-line to buy arms and military vehicles.  

The unlikely route uses an app called DonationAlerts, designed to allow viewers of live gaming streams to make payments. 

But members of Taskforce Rusich have set up accounts on the platform and are openly using it to raise money.

Messages posted during the last few months on the group’s Telegram channel suggest it has been able to raise enough funds to buy drones, armoured vehicles and guns to send to the frontline.  

A translation of a message in the Rusich fighters' Telegram channel reveals a shopping list of weaponry. Credit: ITV News

The most recent request was posted on 4th May – an appeal for support paying for camouflage equipment for paramilitary fighters.

Rusich fundraiser Gadzhiev Magomedkhabib Magomedovich wrote that he was already two-thirds of the way towards collecting his target amount of 1,590,000 Russian roubles (around £15,000), following earlier appeals using his DonationAlerts account.  

“Previously, I have already bought and donated 164 sets of camouflage coats to the 'H' division, the Brothers are satisfied,” he boasted. “Now it's the turn to buy another 120 copies.” 

He told supporters he wanted them to continue to make donations on the platform. “The cost of a camouflage suit set consisting of a suit, a backpack cover, a buff and a helmet cover is 13,000 roubles (£130).”  

Another post on the Rusich channel earlier this month wished a happy birthday to “friend and fighter Evgeny Topaz” - thanking him for his help “financially”. He too used DonationAlerts to raise money - his most recent appeal was in April.

Armed fighters appear in a Taskforce Rusich propaganda video. Credit: ITV News

At first glance the appeals for cash posted on the Rusich Telegram channel hardly stand out - the posts sit on a long stream of gory battlefield videos and propaganda.

But many are followed up by images of new equipment sent to the frontline, which appear to confirm the success of this fundraising method.  

Previous messages posted on the Rusich Telegram channel have thanked Magomedovich for his help buying drones, shotguns, and medical kits.

In April, he was pictured handing over “various goodies” to Alexey Milchakov, the group’s sadist neo-Nazi leader who is sanctioned by the UK, the US, the European Union, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand for his role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Rusich Taskforce leader Alexey Milchakov. Credit: ITV News

Milchakov became notorious after images posted online showed him holding the ear of a dead Ukrainian soldier as a trophy – an act that eventually became a signature of the group. 

The DonationAlerts platform is part of the games publisher My.Games, the company behind titles such as War Robots and Rush Royale. Because the company is headquartered in Netherlands it is subject to European Union sanctions.  

A raft of financial restrictions imposed following the invasion of Ukraine last year was designed to prevent the group from raising money in Europe.

But Rusich leaders have been able to sidestep the sanctions and appeal directly to supporters and sympathisers around the world for money via the platform and, until now, without any resistance.  

“I think it’s a very clear-cut violation of the sanctions” said Yvo Amar, one of the Netherlands’ leading sanctions experts. “It is a clear-cut example of a company facilitating the war in Ukraine.”  

“I think enforcement should take place. I mean the public prosecutor should investigate and enforcement should take place.” 

Yvo Amar tells ITV News this is a 'clear-cut' violation of sanctions

The US Treasury announced in September that it was taking economic measures against Rusich, which it said had “participated in combat alongside Russia’s military in Ukraine.”

Further sanctions have been introduced by the European Union, whose jurisdiction includes the Netherlands.  

A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands told ITV News that although they do not comment on individual cases, “…if there are indications that sanctions are being violated, investigations will always be conducted, and enforcement action taken where necessary.” 

Shortly after being made aware of ITV News’ findings, My.Games closed the accounts of some Rusich members. Topaz posted that he his accounts on DonationAlerts and its sister platform Boosty were down. “I got banned from Boosty,” he wrote.  

A spokesperson for My.Games said: “When we receive a complaint from users regarding a violation, we take appropriate action. We diligently assess any complaints received and, if a creator’s content violates the terms of service, appropriate actions are taken.

"In the current situation, users violated several clauses of the terms of service including promotion of violence, the use of firearms or unlawful subject matter or activities. These violations resulted in the immediate blocking of the accounts." 

DonationAlerts is the owner of My.Games, the publisher of titles like Rush Royale. Credit: ITV News

Rusich has received tens of thousands of pounds in cryptocurrency over the last year according to analysts.

Andrew Fierman, Head of Sanctions Strategy at Chainalysis, has been investigating how Rusich has used cryptocurrency since the invasion in February last year. He told ITV News:

  • From June 19, 2022 through as recently as May 26, 2023, Rusich has received at least $50,134 (around £40,300) in Bitcoin BTC, $43,540 in Ethereum (ETH), which is about £35,000. An additional $51,746 in USDT ETH (over £41,600) and $20,141 (nearly £16,200) in UUSD Coin (USDC is a type of digital dollar, known as a stable coin). They’ve received funds in other currencies, however the total is negligible, around $2,000 (about £1,600) total.

  • Rusich began soliciting donations via crypto on their Telegram channel shortly after the start of the war. However, after being sanctioned by the United States' Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) on September 15, 2022, their original Telegram channel was made private, and they opened a new channel, which does not solicit donations via crypto. 

  • Russian militia groups like Rusich depend on public donation campaigns. However, the combination of the transparency of the blockchain, blockchain analytics and sanctions designations drive actors like Rusich off public campaigns.

  • We’ve seen this time and time again, as just over a month ago, terrorist organisation Hamas announced the end of its crypto donation efforts, citing the challenges of government action and prosecution against donors.

Topaz, a known Rusich fighter, maintains a Telegram Channel, where he promotes his livestream interviews with ads such as this. Credit: ITV News
  • Yevgeny Rasskazov, otherwise known as Topaz, is a known Rusich fighter who also maintains a Telegram account soliciting donations for militia groups and also re-sharing donation posts of Rusich. Topaz and Rusich have not only sent funds to and from one another, but have also both sent funds to the same deposit address at a high-risk exchange - further supporting the affiliation between the operators of these two accounts.

Oleksei was the only survivor of a deadly Taskforce Rusich ambush in southern Ukraine

'They kill with pleasure'

“Rusich are cruel non-humans,” a survivor who came face-to-face with the brutal group on a southern Ukraine battlefield told ITV News. “It’s hard to call them people”.  

Oleksei, a member of Ukraine’s Aidar battalion, knows too well what the group is capable of, as the sole living survivor of a massacre of its fighters committed by Rusich in September 2014.

Forty Ukrainian fighters were killed during the ambush in Donbas. 

“More than 20 fighters of the Aidar battalion were killed. When the active phase of the battle was over, they went around and finished off the injured. I saw this with my own eyes.” 

He had been hiding, injured, forced to overhear his friends being tortured and killed.

Footage of the Rusich group's atrocities includes the group's leader, Milchakov, displaying an ear cut from a vicim. Credit: ITV News

Oleksei said he had heard claims Rusich fighters used knives to disfigure prisoners, maiming them and leaving them to die. He had researched internet videos of atrocities.

“This is a cruel humanoid organism that fights because it gets pleasure from it, that kills with pleasure. They are not soldiers - they are just killers,” he told ITV News. 

He said he believed Russia was using the Rusich fighters to intimidate Ukrainian soldiers and civilians with their brutal methods.

He told of managing to speak to a Rusich man online, gaining an insight into his mindset. Oleksei recalled the fighter appearing proud of cutting his victims in Syria.

The Ukrainian soldier said if he could take a Rusich fighter captive, he would try to understand what makes such a brutal killer.

"I would definitely take them captive and talk to them for a long time and try to understand them, what is going on in their heads, how it is possible."

Oleksei says those who have survived encounters with brutal Rusich fighters are using their experiences to help Ukraine's fight.

"I feel that I have to continue fighting for my land. It was not easy to survive, it was not easy at that time, and those who survived with me are all fighting now, and all are trying to pass on their experience to our current comrades.

"Maybe some of them will listen, learn something new and it will help them survive." 

Heavily armed Rusich fighters are depicted in a propaganda video for the group. Credit: ITV News

What is Taskforce Rusich? 

Though smaller and less well known than Wagner Group, the private army with which it is closely aligned, Rusich has developed a reputation of its own for carrying out gruesome acts.

Promoting itself as a sabotage force, the group had already been fighting in Syria as part of President Assad’s attempts to secure Homs Province by the time the group because notorious for its macabre tactics in Ukraine.  

The extent to which the Rusich is directly controlled by the Kremlin is unclear. Wagner Group operates with considerable autonomy, with a feud between the mercenaries and the ordinary Russian army apparently escalating.

In a video posted late on Sunday by its leader, the powerful Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared to show that its mercenaries had captured a Russian commander.

Lt Col Roman Venevitin, commander of Russia’s 72nd Brigade, was filmed telling his interrogator that he had ordered troops for fire on a Wagner convoy.  

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