Members of two Russian militant groups crossed the border from Ukraine into Belgorod, Russia, on Monday.
Fighters with the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion crossed onto Russian soil in nine armored vehicles, two tanks, and an armored personnel carrier, with the intention of conducting a military attack.
Traffic jams forming as more and more Russians are fleeing the city of Belgorod, following the incursion of the Free Russia Legion (allied with the Ukrainian Army) into the region, taking control of 4 settlements near the city.pic.twitter.com/OVk6l3MZr2
— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) May 22, 2023
Once the vehicles crossed a border post, the men took control of the Russian town of Kozinka, some 600 meters over the border. The attack quickly escalated, with the militants opening fire on Russian troops stationed in the villages of Gora-Podil and Glotove.
While several drone strikes have occurred on Russian soil since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this was the most significant incursion from Ukraine and the first instance of pro-Ukraine soldiers crossing into Russian territory and engaging in warfare.
Video footage shared online showed how Russians immediately began to flee Belgorod as the incident took place, with roads leading out of Belgorod becoming jammed with traffic.
Russian Militants, Ukrainian Support?
On Tuesday, the Russian military said the militants had been neutralized. Russia’s Ministry of Defense also said that the fighters were defeated using air strikes, artillery fire, and active action by border units.
“The remnants of the nationalists were pushed back to Ukrainian territory, where they continued to be hit by gunfire until they were completely eliminated,” the Ministry said in a statement.
The Kremlin blamed Ukraine for the attack, but both groups involved in the attack are Russian. Analysts have suggested, however, that the Russian groups must have had some support from Ukrainian forces, given they left Ukrainian territory with the equipment. Alternatively, the Russian groups must have had some way of obtaining the military equipment in Ukraine without the support of the Ukrainian military.
In a statement, the Freedom of Russian Legion said that all of Russia’s soldiers are “dead, wounded, or in Ukraine.”
“Once again, the myth that citizens of the Russian Federation are safe and the Russian Federation is strong has been destroyed. In fact, the authorities have simply been plundering the budget for years and lying that everything is fine,” the statement continued.
U.S. Distances Itself From Attack
Video footage of the incursion, which was published by the Russian Defense Ministry and verified by U.S. news outlets, appears to show American Humvees and armored vehicles passing through a Russian border checkpoint. The footage sparked concern that the United States could be blamed for the incident, and U.S. officials have said the U.S. does not endorse the attack, nor did it help organize it.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that he is “skeptical” of the veracity of reports that the United States authorized Ukraine to give the equipment to other groups.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, also said that the department is keeping a close eye on the story. Both officials emphasized that the United States has never encouraged Ukraine to cross into Russian territory, with Miller adding the caveat that “it is up to Ukraine to decide how to conduct the war.”
While the United States may not have endorsed, orchestrated, or recommended the attack, it remains possible that Ukraine deliberately handed over U.S.-supplied equipment to the group.
Wagner Chief Warns Of Revolution In Russia
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin suggested this week that the raid, along with the suffering of working-class Russian families who are still enduring the impact of the war, could result in a revolution.
During an interview, Prigozhin described how working Russian families are witnessing their sons and brothers returning home in zinc coffins while the nation’s elite class has barely suffered at all.
“This divide can end as in 1917 with a revolution,” Prigozhin said. “First the soldiers will stand up, and after that, their loved ones will rise up. There are already tens of thousands of them — relatives of those killed. And there will probably be hundreds of thousands. We cannot avoid that.”
Russian officials are likely aware of the toll the war is taking on its people. That alone could be one reason why the Russian Ministry of Defense spent so many resources on taking control of Bakhmut — a city that many analysts say holds no strategic importance to Russia, and only serves to give the Kremlin a victory it can present to the Russian people.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu promised a harsh response to the Belgorod raid on Wednesday. After saying that over 70 “Ukrainian nationalists” were killed as Russian forces pushed back against the attempted attacks, Shoigu added that Russian forces will “continue to respond to such actions by Ukrainian militants promptly and extremely harshly.”
Jack Buckby is 19FortyFive’s Breaking News Editor. He is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and reports on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.