Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine took a surprising turn this week—into Russia. Even more shocking: The offensive looks to have been executed by Russian nationals allied with Ukrainian forces attempting to sow panic within Russia.
It may be working.
“We are in such a condition that we could f—ing lose Russia—that is the main problem,” Wagner Group commander Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an interview Tuesday. “This divide can end as in 1917 with a revolution.”
The day prior, the militants moved from Ukraine into the southwestern region of Belgorod. By Wednesday, drone strikes, artillery, and mortar fire had left one person dead and eight injured, Russian officials said. Electrical substations and a Federal Security Service building were also hit.
While Ukraine says the operation is the work of anti-Putin Russian defectors, the Kremlin blames “Ukrainian nationalists.” And as Russian officials claim to have quashed the militants swiftly, Ukraine and the groups taking responsibility say the fighting raged on for days, forcing Russia to deploy new reserves.
What do we know?
Two groups of Russian nationals have taken credit for the attack.
Two armed groups, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion, claim to be working together to bring the fight to Russia. The former is made up of right-wing Russian activists, many of whom have been fighting in Ukraine since 2014 as part of different volunteer militias. The latter cropped up more recently and includes defectors from the Russian army, Russians who were living in Ukraine at the start of the invasion, and political activists who left Russia after the invasion.
Both militias have been fighting alongside the Ukrainian military as part of the foreign legion, mostly, up to this point, to defend Ukrainian territory—particularly in and around Bakhmut. But Ukraine has denied responsibility for the recent cross-border operations. “In Ukraine these units are part of defense and security forces,” Andriy Yusov, a Ukrainian Defense Intelligence representative, said in an interview with CNN. “In Russia they are acting as independent entities.”
But Ukraine’s involvement in the Belgorod attacks might be more hands-on than its public statements would suggest. Ukraine’s military played a “support role,” a Ukrainian official told the New York Times, positioning troops near the border in anticipation of a possible Russian counterattack. “The approval for the operation was received,” Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian member of parliament who now acts as the political representative for the pro-Ukrainian Russian fighters, told The Dispatch. “But the planning, the organization, the day-to-day command is all in the hands of Russians, and not a single Ukrainian soldier has crossed the Ukraine-Russia border.”
There are reasons to doubt Russia’s claims of a swift victory.
On Tuesday night, Russian officials claimed to have “eliminated” the insurgency by either killing or driving out all remaining fighters from Belgorod. Yet, gunfire and explosions continued to ring out into Wednesday morning, with local authorities reporting a series of overnight drone strikes. The pro-Ukrainian groups conceded losses on Wednesday, but insisted they still controlled pockets of Russian territory near the border. “They liberated approximately 10 villages, and they are fortifying, they are entrenching,” Ponomarev said in an interview on Wednesday.
Reports that the Russian military deployed additional units to drive the insurgents out strengthened the claim that fighting was ongoing into midweek. Pro-Ukrainian media said that Russia had repositioned its 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade to deal with the incursion, and unverified footage from the Russian defense ministry appeared to show Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin—who last year was dismissed from his command after disastrous Russian losses near the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv—had been put in charge of Russia troops in Belgorod.
Speaking from Ukraine Wednesday evening, an anti-government Russian fighter who goes by the call sign Caesar said the partisan groups had completed their mission in Belgorod, but planned to return. The Russian troops deployed to put down the insurgency, he claimed, were “demoralized and unprepared” despite their superior manpower.
The strikes on Russian soil are both symbolic and strategic.
It’s not the first time Russian opponents of Vladimir Putin have taken credit for operations inside Russia. Last year, the underground National Republican Army claimed to be behind a car bombing in Moscow that killed Darya Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Putin ally. The anti-government group—which is aligned with the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion—has also taken credit for last month’s assassination of Kremlin propagandist Vladlen Tatarsky in St. Petersburg, as well as a series of cyberattacks on Russia’s security infrastructure.
The goal of attacks on Russian soil, Ponomarev said, is to inspire other partisans—and to keep the Kremlin and its allies on their toes: “The message needs to be sent that Putin cannot provide security for Russian elites, for his establishment—and that they need to replace him, that Putin is the source of insecurity rather than stability.”
In the case of Belgorod, there was also a military objective. By posing a threat to the Russian homeland, the groups were able to “make Putin spend his time, energy, and resources on fighting these two groups instead of attacking Ukrainians in Ukraine,” said Ivana Stradner, a Russia expert with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “This is a very serious signal to Putin and to the Russian people that there are people who are willing to fight this regime.”