MOSCOW -- Researchers who track xenophobia in Russia have recorded an "impressive" decrease in hate crimes as the authorities appear to have stepped up pressure on far-right groups, in particular targeting nationalist critics of the Kremlin and its campaign in eastern Ukraine.
The Sova Center's annual report, presented on February 19, said a flurry of criminal cases opened last year against ultranationalist groups -- in particular opposition ones -- coupled with deep divisions among nationalists over Russia's role in war-torn Ukraine have splintered the nationalist underground.
The effect has been a reconfiguration of the far right, Sova says, creating space for pro-Kremlin, nationalist groups like Anti-Maidan and the National Liberation Movement (NOD) of United Russia lawmaker Yegveny Fyodorov to gain prominence.
"This process has clearly led to the replacement of ethno-xenophobic movements, which are not loyal to the political regime, by ones which are prepared to dial down the opposition rhetoric or abandon it altogether," the report's authors wrote.
The Sova Center said the targeting of anti-Kremlin nationalists continued a trend that began in the second half of 2014. It listed a string of criminal cases and police searches carried out on nationalists like Dmitry Dyomushkin, leader of the now-banned group called simply Russians.
Dyomushkin's apartment was raided in May 2015, while police in December began investigating him for alleged extremism over a comment he made more than two years earlier.
The Sova Center identified 38 people who had suffered xenophobic attacks motivated by their ethnicity in 2015, compared to 101 the year before.
The number of criminal sentences meted out for violence fueled by racism rose in 2015, while the number of criminal sentences for xenophobic statements or inciting hatred rose considerably, with an "unprecedented" number of jail terms handed out "only for words," the report found.
The authors of the Sova report speculated that the Kremlin might be targeting far-right groups who oppose the Kremlin to prevent them from "absorbing the fighters returning from Donbas [in eastern Ukraine] in whom it is impossible not to see a potential threat."
"Possibly, the authorities fear that nationalists, who are significantly more oriented towards violence than liberals or the majority of the left, could become an important element of force in a potential, more radical protest movement," the authors write.
Sova expresses concern that far-right groups that earlier sent fighters to eastern Ukraine are continuing to engage in military training, even though it is "unclear" what they are training for, with the possible center of attention shifted from Ukraine to Syria, where the Kremlin is carrying out air strikes to support President Bashar al-Assad.
Ukraine remains a defining and divisive issue among ultranationalists, Sova says, with some vehemently supporting the Kremlin and other, pan-Slavic nationalists blaming the Kremlin for Moscow's split with Kyiv.
Such a divide was evident on November 4, Russia's Unity Day, when nationalists traditionally march and rival rallies took place in the capital, Moscow.
On the anniversary early last year of Ukraine's pro-Western Euromaidan unrest in 2014, the pro-Kremlin groups Anti-Maidan and NOD held a joint anti-Ukrainian rally under the slogan "never forget, never forgive." An activist from NOD in October assaulted an elderly opposition supporter protesting outside the Kremlin.
"This atmosphere and more still, the anomalously large number of criminal cases opened and other forms of pressure, have led to the reconfiguration of the ultra-right field, removing some organizations from the game, and bringing others to the foreground," the report says.
Against that backdrop, racist and neo-Nazi violence has dropped.
"As far as criminal activity by the far right is concerned, there is an impressive result in that neo-Nazi attacks, according to our figures, have fallen dramatically," the report says.