Russia has said its security forces killed dozens of militants who crossed into its Belgorod region from Ukraine, but the guerrilla groups involved claimed that their fighters were still “liberating” the region from president Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Two groups of ethnic Russians fighting in Ukraine against Mr Putin’s invasion force – known as the Freedom of Russia legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) – said they crossed into Belgorod region on Monday and took over at least two villages, in an unprecedented move that they said showed the real weakness of the Kremlin regime.
“In the course of a counter-terrorist operation, the nationalist groups were blocked and destroyed by air strikes, artillery fire and active operations by units guarding the state border,” Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday.
“The remnants of the nationalists were driven back to the territory of Ukraine, where they continued to be hit by fire until they were completely eliminated. More than 70 Ukrainian terrorists, four armoured fighting vehicles and five pick-up trucks were destroyed.”
Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to acknowledge that the guerrilla groups were made up of Russians who oppose the 23-year rule of Mr Putin, even as the insurgents urged their compatriots to rise up against his regime and end the invasion of Ukraine, which has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.
Mr Peskov said the raid was conducted by “Ukrainian militants from Ukraine”, before adding: “There are many ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, but still they [the guerrillas in Belgorod] are Ukrainian militants. This is what matters . . . Of course, what happened yesterday is deeply concerning, it once again confirms that Ukrainian militants continue their activities against our country.”
Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said about 100 people had been evacuated from border villages where fighting took place and about eight had been injured. Local residents who left the area were urged not to return to their homes on Tuesday.
Ukrainian officials have distanced themselves from the raid, saying that it shows how disaffection with, and armed resistance to, the Putin regime is growing among ordinary Russians. Kyiv made similar claims following recent drone and sabotage attacks on Russian infrastructure, and a drone strike on the Kremlin that Moscow blamed on Ukraine.
“The Legion and the RDK continue to liberate the Belgorod region. The army of the Russian Federation could not do anything to oppose a group of patriotic volunteers who took up arms and were not afraid to openly go against the Moscow regime for the free future of Russia,” the Freedom of Russia legion said on social media on Tuesday.
“The Russian Federation has no reserves to respond to military crises – all servicemen are dead, wounded or in Ukraine. Russia is absolutely not protected,” the group added.
The RDK group said on its Telegram social media channel: “Soon there will not be anyone in Russia who has not lost someone to this criminal war. To end it, you need to hit the enemy in the territory he occupies. The war will continue until Putin’s hanged body decorates the Kremlin walls and his gang is judged by the just court of Russian wrath.”
The Kremlin said Ukraine staged the raid to distract attention from Russia’s capture of the devastated city of Bakhmut after months of heavy fighting. Kyiv’s military said on Tuesday that its forces were still present in one part of the city and were slowly advancing on its flanks.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the partly occupied Donetsk region to give awards to men and women serving in the marines and thanked them “for bringing the most important page of our country closer – this is the page of Ukraine’s just victory”.