The Kremlin said its security forces were combating gunmen who infiltrated villages in western Russia from nearby Ukraine, as Russian volunteers fighting for Kyiv took responsibility for the raid and urged compatriots to help them topple the regime of president Vladimir Putin.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the operation was a bid by Ukraine to distract from its loss of the eastern city of Bakhmut, where Kyiv insists that its soldiers still have a foothold and are attempting to surround Russian units that claimed to have taken full control of the ruined transport hub on Saturday.
“The ministry of defence, the FSB (security service) and the border service reported to the president of the Russian Federation ... about an attempt by a Ukrainian sabotage group to enter the Belgorod region. Work is underway to force them out of Russian territory and destroy this sabotage group,” Mr Peskov said on Monday.
“We fully understand the purpose of such sabotage – to divert attention from the Bakhmut direction, to minimise the political effect of the loss of Artemovsk by the Ukrainian side,” he added, using the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut.
Members of the so-called Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Freedom of Russia legion – made up of anti-Putin Russians who fight the Kremlin’s invasion force in Ukraine – posted photos and video which they said showed them in Russian villages near the border.
“The legion and the RDK completely liberated the settlement of Kozinka, Belgorod region. Advance detachments entered Graivoron. We move on. Russia will be free!” they wrote on social media. Kozinka is a village on Russia’s border with Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region, and Graivoron is the slightly larger district centre a few kilometres to the east.
Freedom of Russia urged people to “stay at home, do not resist and do not be afraid: we are not your enemies. Unlike Putin’s zombies, we do not touch civilians and do not use them for our own purposes.”
In a video address, an unnamed member of the unit said: “Residents of Russia. We are Russians just like you. We are different only because we no longer wanted to justify the actions of the criminals in power and we took up arms to fight for our and your freedom ... It’s time for the Kremlin’s dictatorship to end – the legion is coming home.”
Russia has blamed Kyiv’s security forces for several drone and sabotage attacks on infrastructure in Belgorod and neighbouring Bryansk region, and for launching two drones that hit the roof of a Kremlin building in central Moscow last month.
Ukrainian officials distance themselves from such incidents, however, and suggest they are the work of a rising anti-Putin resistance movement inside Russia.
“The only driving political force in a totalitarian country of tightened screws is always an armed guerrilla movement,” said Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. “Ukraine is watching the events in the Belgorod region of Russia with interest and studying the situation, but it has nothing to do with it.”
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group claimed to have taken full control of the ruins of Bakhmut on Saturday, but Ukraine’s military insisted again on Monday that its troops were still in a small portion of the city and were working to take the flanks and encircle it.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) again expressed concern over the fate of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station – the largest such facility in Europe – after shelling once more cut external power to the site for several hours. Russia and Ukraine blamed each other’s forces for the incident, which prompted the six-reactor plant to switch to emergency diesel backup generators.