On Saturday, the three-year anniversary of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, numerous nationalist groups across Russia held rallies and proclaimed their support for Russia’s actions in Crimea and other Kremlin policies. These groups profess loyalty to President Vladimir Putin and to protecting Russia’s “traditional values,” and they have a right to speak and be heard.

But some members have gone beyond protesting, instead using harassment, threats, and violence to push their agenda. And they are getting away with it.

National Liberation Movement flags at a rally in Moscow, March 18, 2017.

© 2017 George Leech/Human Rights Watch

The most visible group is the National Liberation Movement (NLM), headed by a parliamentarian belonging to the ruling United Russia party, Evgeny Fyodorov. The group claims over 160,000 members united under the slogan: “Motherland, Freedom, Putin!” Although mostly engaging in peaceful protests or organizing humanitarian aid for Russian-backed separatists regions in eastern Ukraine, some members have been involved in attacks on opposition politicians, protesters, and nongovernmental groups across Russia. For example, they teamed up with people claiming to be Cossacks to intimidate and fight with members of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council in cities of Novocherkassk and Rostov-on-Don, and they assaulted photographer David Frenkel in Saint Petersburg last December.

Another group, South East Radical Block (SERB) regularly provoke, intimidate, and sometimes attack those critical of “traditional values” policies in Moscow. They attacked members of the opposition movement Solidarnost during a protest against the wars in Syria and Ukraine and boasted about assaulting an activist guarding the memorial of assassinated opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Other similar groups vandalized a photo exhibition at Moscow’s Sakharov Center, and disrupted an annual student essay competition sponsored by the human rights center Memorial.

Frenkel’s assailant was eventually fined, but mostly authorities do the minimum when responding to these attacks and provocations, indicating a willingness to look the other way. Valentina Cherevatenko, director of Women of the Don, an independent peacebuilding group, told me she witnessed the incidents in Novocherkassk and Rostov-on-Don. A Solidarnost member described to me how SERB attacked him. In both incidents no one was held accountable. Both activists believe members of such groups are increasingly prepared to commit acts of violence and intimidation openly, given that the authorities are unlikely to punish them.

While these groups have a right to protest and have their voice heard, the use of violence and intimidation is unacceptable, as is the Russian authorities’ tolerance of it.