An apparent attack on Russian soil by anti-Putin Russians, fighting to support Ukraine, has caused confusion and anger in Moscow.
Residents of the attacked settlements in Russia’s Belgorod region have been resettled in other areas as authorities continue to “clean up the territory” after the cross-border incursion launched into Ukraine, officials said on Tuesday.
One civilian died as a result of the fighting, according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.
But questions remain about the group behind the attack, how it happened and what it means for the war.
Here’s what you need to know.
The two groups of anti-Putin national Russians, which are fighting in Ukraine as part of the Kyiv Defense Forces, the Freedom Legion for Russia and the Russian Volunteer Corps, have claimed responsibility for the attack in the region. southwestern Russian Belgorod, which borders northeastern Ukraine. .
“Residential and administrative buildings and civilian infrastructure were subjected to mortar and artillery fire. As a result of these criminal actions, several civilians were injured,” the Russian Investigative Committee said on Telegram when announcing an investigation into the attack.
Two areas in the region were then hit overnight by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Gladkov said, causing two houses to burn.
A helicopter flies over the Russian region of Belgorod, the site of fighting between Russian defectors and pro-Kremlin troops amid the war in Ukraine.
It appears to be the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine that Kyiv-aligned forces have launched a cross-border ground operation on Russian targets.
Aleksey Baranovsky, a representative of the Kyiv-based Russian Armed Opposition Political Center – the political wing of the Freedom Legion for Russia – told CNN that the operation began on Sunday evening and the fighting was ” in progress”.
He did not specify the number of fighters who had crossed the border with Russia. Baranovsky said the group wanted to “liberate our homeland from Putin’s tyranny”.
Gladkov initially said no one died, but later on Tuesday he said: “Unfortunately, we have casualties. A civilian from the village of Kozinka died at the hands of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a daily briefing on Tuesday that its forces had repelled the attackers on Ukrainian territory using airstrikes, artillery fire and military units. He added: “The remnants of the nationalists were pushed back into Ukrainian territory, where they continued to be hit by fire until they were completely eliminated.”
The Freedom Legion for Russia said Tuesday morning on Telegram that it and another group, the Russian Volunteer Corps, “continue to liberate the Belgorod region!” The message described the groups as “patriotic volunteers” and claimed that Russia was vulnerable to attack because “Russia has no reserves to respond to military crises. All servicemen are dead, injured or in Ukraine.
As one of its fighters, who goes by the call sign “Caesar”, put it in a video statement he recorded with his comrades before joining a cross-border raid in his homeland: “Russia will be free”.
CNN’s Sam Kiley interviewed this same fighter in December, as the group fought for Ukraine against Russian attacks on the frontline town of Bakhmut.
“From the first day of the war, my heart, the heart of a real Russian, a real Christian, told me that I had to be here to defend the Ukrainian people,” Caesar said. CNN has agreed not to reveal his name to protect his identity.
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“It was a very difficult process,” Caesar said of joining the Ukrainian effort. “It took me several months to finally join the ranks of defenders of Ukraine.”
Now with his family in Ukraine – where he considers them safer – Caesar said he is one of some 200 Russian citizens currently fighting alongside Ukrainian troops, against their own country’s armies. CNN was unable to independently confirm this figure.
While Russian officials condemned the attack, analysts noted widespread confusion in the Russian information space about how the attack was authorized and how Moscow should respond.
Russian bloggers and pundits reacted with a “degree of panic, factionalism, and inconsistency as tends to appear when experiencing significant informational shocks,” wrote the Institute for Science think tank. War Studies (ISW) in its daily briefing on the conflict.
“The attack took Russian commentators by surprise,” the ISW said.
This has the potential to be embarrassing for President Vladimir Putin, who for 15 months has been leading an invasion he has claimed is baseless necessary to keep Russia safe. With limited returns to the battlefield, Putin may now be unhappy that war is disrupting life at home.
03:14 – Source: CNN
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Earlier this month, the Kremlin went public with an incident that saw two drones fly over the Kremlin. It remains unclear who was responsible – Moscow blamed Ukraine for what it called an attack on Putin’s life; Ukraine and the United States have denied involvement – but the dramatic video could be held up by Putin’s internal critics as a visual example of the unraveling nature of Moscow’s war.
A still image shows a flying object exploding in a burst of intense light near the dome of the Kremlin’s Senate building earlier this month.
In a separate incident on Monday night, the Freedom Legion for Russia posted a video on Telegram that appears to show the so-called blue and white flag of Free Russia flying over Moscow State University.
Other videos released by the group also appear to show another Russian opposition flag flying above various neighborhoods in the Russian capital.
The group did not claim direct responsibility for the incidents, and CNN could not independently verify the information.
As has often been the case following alleged violence on Russian soil since Moscow invaded Ukraine, the incident has prompted very different narratives from the Kremlin and Kyiv.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday called the instigators “Ukrainian activists, from Ukraine”, despite the fact that the group claiming responsibility is made up of Russian nationals. Peskov previously said Kremlin forces were working to repel a “sabotage and reconnaissance group”, according to state media TASS.
A Ukrainian official acknowledged that the units had carried out an operation in the area, but insisted that they were acting independently.
“We can confirm that this operation was carried out by Russian citizens,” Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency, told CNN.
He said the units were “part of the defense and security forces” when in Ukraine, but independent of Kyiv when not: “In Russia they act as ‘independent entities’.
The attacks are unlikely to cause a change of momentum in the wider war in Ukraine, which has largely been concentrated in Ukraine’s eastern regions and has seen little territory change hands for several months. The conflict is at a virtual stalemate and is most likely to be affected by Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive against Russian forces, which may already be underway.
But as with previous flashpoints away from the front lines, it has the potential to shape the narrative surrounding the conflict in Russia and Ukraine.
Moscow has always been keen to paint a picture of Russian victimization as a pretext to step up attacks on Ukraine, given its public claim that the invasion is an act of self-defense and is necessary to keep Russia safe. Putin will no doubt seek to use these attacks to bolster this narrative, despite kyiv’s denials that he had any official involvement.
It is possible that a short-term display of anger may also follow. After previous incidents that have embarrassed Russia – such as the murky drone incident over the Kremlin this month and the strike on the bridge connecting Russia with occupied Crimea in October – Moscow has responded with a barrage of missile attacks across Ukraine, including on the capital Kiev.
Putin will likely be keen to draw Russia’s attention to incidents away from the front lines, where his forces are struggling to deliver a significant blow to Ukrainian defenses – most clearly exemplified by the costly months-long effort to capture the relatively insignificant town of Bakhmut.