Ukraine has denied responsibility after fighting broke out in Russia’s Belgorod border region, saying instead it may be the work of Russian anti-Putin freedom fighters.
Russia has accused Ukraine of launching a “subversive group” into the town of Graivoron in the Belgorod Oblast (region), about three miles from the Ukrainian border. The city of Belgorod itself caught headlines last month after Russia accidentally bombed itself there.
It is claimed flags in the traditional blue and white colours of the region — also described as the ‘Free Russia’ flag — have been hoisted above some buildings.
An ironic enough state of affairs perhaps, given Russia is 15 months into its own invasion of Ukraine, but the Kremlin said it was working to “drive the saboteurs from Russia and eliminate the group”. Russia accuses Ukraine of launching the incursion into their territory as a distraction from what the Kremlin claims is their defeat in Bakhmut, and the United Kingdom said Russia would seek to use the attacks, which they believe have been ongoing for several days, to portray itself as a victim.
As night falls, Russian citizens are going to bed with the knowledge that a part of Russia is under occupation for the first time since 1943.
Well done Ukraine! 🇺
Map by @Gromada24 pic.twitter.com/jf1b77SUYV
— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) May 22, 2023
Ukraine for their part denied direct involvement, with presidential spokesman Mykhailo Podolyak writing Ukraine “has nothing to do with it” and that an “armed guerrilla movement” was responsible.
A spokesman for Kyiv’s military intelligence establishment also said what was occurring in Belgorod is down to the work of Russian freedom fighters. Intelligence officer Andriy Yusov said “Everything that is happening on the territory of the Russian Federation is an internal Russian conflict”, and that the forces fighting against the Russian army and border guards in Belgorod were Russian citizen members of the “Freedom of Russia Legion” and “Russian Volunteer Corps”.
A spokesman for the Freedom Legion in military dress, surrounded by fighters wearing Ukrainian tactical recognition flashes, said: “We are as Russian as you are. We are people like you. We want our children to grow up in peace and be free people… Russia will be free”. The goal of freedom for Russian people was not yet possible due to the corruption and oppression of Putin’s Russia, he said in the recorded addresson Monday.
While Ukraine maintains all those engaged in fighting are Russian citizens, subsequent comments by Ukraine spokesman Yusov later on Monday evening implied, at least, these Russian fighters would have the effect of advancing Ukrainian goals even if they aren’t under Ukrainian command. A press release by the Ukrainian government’s own news service quoted Yusov as saying the “operation to liberate the territories of Belgorod region from the so-called Putin regime” would “push back the enemy in order to create a certain security strip to protect the Ukrainian civilian population”.
The Legion and the RVC completely liberated n/a Kozinka, Belgorod Oblast. Forward units have entered Graivoron.
Russia will be free!
— “Liberty of Russia” Legion (@legion_svoboda) May 22, 2023
The officer said the security of the Ukrainian people would be increased by creating a zone of conflict on their border within Russia because it would “push [Russian government forces] terrorist groups away from the border” and reduce artillery shelling of Ukrainian towns. As noted by the Associated Press, the exact nature of these anti-Putin paramilitary groups and what links they have to the Ukrainian government is unclear. The Volunteer Corps has previously described itself as “a volunteer formation fighting on Ukraine’s side”.
Potentially controversially, according to the AP’s report, the Volunteer Corps is believed to consist mostly of “anti-Putin far-right Russian extremists who have links with Ukrainian far-right groups”.
Ukraine emphasised the “measures do not pose a threat to the civilian population, peaceful citizens”. A statement by the Legion said: “Residents of the border regions! Stay at home, do not resist and do not be afraid: we are not your enemies”. Russia, on the other hand, claimed civilians had been injured in the fighting, one person had died during their evacuation of the area, and that it was not yet safe for locals to return to their homes while the “mopping-up” operation continued.
Kyiv claims Russia has started to evacuate its nuclear weapons stockpile from the Belgorod region as a precaution.
The euphemistically named “mopping-up” operation cited by Russia is an “anti-terror regime”, reports the Agence France-Presse, a special declaration of emergency powers which frees security services to enforce new restrictions and snoop on locals. The service notes such a regime was in place in Chechnya for ten years from 1999 as Moscow fought insurgents there.
Mopping up or not, Belgorod has reportedly been struck by drone attacks on Tuesday morning, suggesting action is ongoing. Reports including from The Guardian say drones were used to drop explosives on the local offices of Russia’s FSB, what became of the KGB intelligence agency after the end of the Cold War.
Crediting attacks within the Russian Federation to Russian rebels rather than direct Ukrainian involvement has been an important strategy for Kyiv in recent months, as denigrating the capacity of the Russian war machine has been a priority, but not spooking Western allies supplying ever-more advanced weapons remains essential. As equipment support from the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and others has progressed from the generally defensive to more obviously offensive systems like tanks and even fighter jets, Western countries have insisted on getting guarantees from Ukraine that the weapons won’t be used to counter-invade Russia, escalating the war.
U.S. President Joe Biden said at the weekend he had now reassured a “flat assurance” from President Volodymyr Zelensky that any F-16 fighter jets received to push the Russians back would not be used to attack Russia itself, just Russian forces within Ukraine’s borders. With this agreement made, the doorway to F-16 operating nations to donate advanced Western warplanes to Kyiv now appears to have been left open for the first time.
Russia Forming ‘Elite’ Air Squadron Underlines Ukraine Failures, Says UKhttps://t.co/pmT4EP8Bbk
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) May 22, 2023
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