• The Russian region of Belgorod has been the target since Monday of an incursion of armed fighters from Ukraine, which forced Russia to declare an "anti-terrorist" regime and evacuate civilians to try to repel this new attack on its soil.
  • If other attacks have taken place in recent weeks in this border region, this is the first to have taken such a scale, illustrating the permeability of the Russian border.
  • Moscow claimed on Tuesday to have "crushed" the group that attacked the Russian region of Belgorod from Ukraine the day before, but this information is unverifiable for the moment.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war has occasionally interfered on the territory of Russia. If they have sometimes been spectacular, such as the explosion of two drones in the Kremlin, in the very heart of the capital, they have never been of such magnitude. On Monday, fighters launched an armed incursion into Russian territory in the "special operation conduct area in the Belgorod region," according to the official Russian news agency TASS. Propelling this border region of Ukraine, into this war which, in Russia, still does not say its name.

Tanks and shells burst into the villages of Zamostye, Glotovo and Grayvoron. Several localities have been evacuated and videos circulating on social media show lines of vehicles fleeing the area. After having silenced this armed incursion, the Kremlin finally officially expressed its "deep concern" on Tuesday. However, the Russian government then claimed to have "crushed" the armed group through "air and artillery strikes and the action of border defense units of the Western Military District", without this information being confirmed at this stage.

Two armed groups on the offensive

"There are two separate Russian groups, independent of the Ukrainian military, that claim their involvement in this incursion. The 'Freedom of Russia' Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (KDR), both are fighting on Ukraine's side in this war," said Carole Grimaud, an expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory. The "Freedom of Russia" legion, formed in March 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has engaged against Moscow. According to the commander of the company, quoted in May 2022 by UNIAN, the Ukrainian news agency, these volunteers committed themselves alongside Kiev in order to "protect Ukrainians from real fascists".

"Since the beginning of the war, we have seen a lot of their white-blue-white flags that symbolize for them the future flag of Russia, rid of Vladimir Putin," says the expert of Russia. The second formation involved in this incursion is more murky. "Denis Nikkitin [real name Kapustin] would be at the head of the battalion of Russian volunteers. He is a far-right activist who lived in Germany and got into trouble with the law," says Carole Grimaud. Both groups are independent of the Ukrainian government, which claims to have no responsibility for this attack, perpetrated on Russian territory. They also have the particularity of being composed of Russians.

A slap in the face for Moscow

"These are Russians attacking Russia itself. For the Russians, it is something very strong, on the order of the beginning of a civil war, "analyzes Carole Grimaud. It is above all a slap in the face for Moscow. The attacks on its soil continue to be repeated over the months. The Kremlin has admitted that "more efforts" are needed to combat these incursions, while the permeability of its borders is increasingly pointed out. For the first time since February 24, 2022, Russia was forced to implement an "anti-terrorist" regime on its territory. "The other regions, even Crimea and annexed areas, are under martial law. This regime is at a higher level, it allows the control of citizens, incursions into their homes or the seizure of private vehicles, "lists Carole Grimaud, specifying that this regime had been established in Chechnya.

Hi everyone!

Not much info since last night, but let's take stock though.

Russian volunteers continue to hold the #Kozinka checkpoint in the #Belgorod region.

It can be seen on this video.

What's next? 34/n pic.twitter.com/eeb0EJp4p3

— Cyrille Amoursky (@AmourskyCyrille) May 23, 2023

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The Russian president has not yet spoken on the subject. "On the one hand, the official discourse continues in a linear fashion: 'the operation continues according to Vladimir Putin's plans'. On the other hand, the population is forced to evacuate and the Russians are attacked on their own soil," the expert told the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory. As Moscow increasingly stifles the voices of opponents, the men participating in this incursion hope to force the emergence of another narrative. "They are asking the Russian people to wake up and join their struggle to oust the ruling power. The Legion "Freedom of Russia" publishes photographs of their blue-white-blue flag hanging from balloons flying over Moscow," says Carole Grimaud. In order to turn Russian public opinion around and recruit new fighters, these groups have also made "a list of cities in which acts of resistance have taken place."

From buffer zone to diversion

In its demand, the "Freedom for Russia" legion assures that its objective is to "create a demilitarized zone on the border" between Russia and Ukraine in order to protect the latter from Moscow's assaults and bombings. "The idea of a demilitarized zone is circulating more and more. The US General Staff would consider creating a buffer and demilitarized zone to stop the fighting, like the Korean war where the two parties have never signed a peace treaty, "says Carole Grimaud. With an incursion of only ten kilometers into Russian territory, the current operation is far from the ambition that Washington would have.

There may be a desire to attract Russia's reserves to this region in order to launch the counteroffensive more easily."

Finally, there remains the possibility that the combatants will serve as a diversion. Ukraine is preparing a long-awaited counter-offensive for several weeks. The implementation of this attack on the territory of Russia itself could disrupt the Russian army, or even disorganize it. "There could be a desire to draw Russia's reserves into this region in order to launch the counteroffensive more easily. But to disengage Russian troops from the front and relocate them to the Belgorod region, we need a more powerful lever, more attacking force," says the expert at the Geostrategic Observatory of Geneva. Rumors are circulating, however, that the Kremlin has given the order to send some units to the region.

  • War in Ukraine
  • World
  • Kremlin
  • Vladimir Poutine
  • Russia