- Groups say they are Russians seeking to overthrow Putin
- Kremlin Blames “Ukrainian Nationalists”; Kyiv denies its role
- The raid appears to be the largest in Russia since the start of the war
KYIV, May 23 (Reuters) – Moscow said on Tuesday it had routed and killed dozens of “Ukrainian nationalists” who entered Russia from Ukraine after two days of fighting, in what appeared to be one of the most major such incursions of the 15 Month War.
There was no immediate independent confirmation that the fighting had ended, but the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region said counterterrorism measures he introduced after Monday’s attack had been lifted.
And one of the two groups claiming to be behind the raid said in a social media post: “One day we will come back to stay”.
The fighting has forced Russia to evacuate towns along the border with northeastern Ukraine. Russia blamed Ukraine for the attack, which kyiv denied. The two groups that have claimed responsibility describe themselves as armed Russian dissidents.
The Russian military said it killed more than 70 Ukrainian nationalists and destroyed four armored vehicles. Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said a civilian was killed “at the hands of the Ukrainian Armed Forces”.
There has been no independent confirmation of the deaths.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in an evening report that there had been no missile attacks in Ukraine in the past 24 hours.
“But the enemy launched 25 airstrikes and carried out more than 20 bombardments on towns and villages,” the report said. “There are, unfortunately, civilians dead and injured and private homes and administrative infrastructure have been damaged.”
In Belgorod, Russian forces surrounded enemy fighters and defeated them with “air strikes, artillery fire and active action by border units”, the defense ministry said.
“The remnants of the nationalists were pushed back into Ukrainian territory, where they continued to be hit by gunfire until they were completely eliminated,” he added.
The two groups that claimed responsibility for the raid, the Russian Freedom Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), both say they include armed Russian fighters seeking to overthrow President Vladimir Putin.
The Legion claims to be recognized by Ukraine and its members fought there against Russian forces. The RVC has claimed responsibility for previous attacks inside Russia, including a cross-border raid in the nearby Bryansk region in March.
“Hello everyone except Putin’s henchmen. We have met the dawn on liberated territory and we are going further,” the Legion said on Telegram.
“Once again the myth that the citizens of the Russian Federation are safe and the Russian Federation is strong has been destroyed,” he said in a later post.
The RVC said: “One day we will come to stay. In the meantime, the partisan movement is not bound by the framework of traditional combat operations.”
IT WAS NOT US, SAYS KYIV
Mark Galeotti, head of London-based consultancy Mayak Intelligence, said activist groups spanned a variety of political perspectives united in wanting to see Putin’s downfall.
“But at the same time, we have to realize that these are not independent forces… They are controlled by Ukrainian military intelligence. They rely on the Ukrainians for arms and support.”
Kyiv has publicly denied responsibility for the raid, though some of its denials have been tossed around with apparent irony, to mimic past Russian denials of a role in separatist movements in Ukraine.
Kyiv “has nothing to do with it,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted. “As you know, tanks are sold in any Russian military store, and underground guerrilla groups are made up of Russian citizens.”
Moscow, which describes its February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine as a response to a security threat to Kiev, said the attackers were Ukrainian saboteurs, seeking to distract from the capture of the town of Bakhmut by Russia three days ago, after the bloodiest ground battle in Europe since World War II.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was conducting its “special military operation” in Ukraine in part to ensure such incidents would not happen again.
“This confirms once again that Ukrainian militants are continuing their activities against our country. This requires a lot of effort from us, and these efforts continue,” he said.
Asked about reports that the attackers were ethnic Russians, he said: “They are Ukrainian fighters from Ukraine. Many ethnic Russians live in Ukraine. But they are still Ukrainian militants.”
Mash, a Russian news channel on Telegram, said drones hit the roof of Russia’s FSB security service building in the city of Belgorod overnight, nearly 80 km (50 miles) from the neighborhood where the raid took place. He posted a photo of emergency vehicles outside the building.
Inside Ukraine, Russian forces are celebrating their first notable victory in 10 months with the capture of Bakhmut, where thousands of troops have died in months of fighting that both sides call a meat grinder. kyiv claims its forces have made their own gains on the outskirts of Bakhmut to the north and south.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that training Ukrainian pilots to fly US-built F-16 fighter jets, endorsed by US President Joe Biden, does not make NATO a party to the conflict.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said the more destructive weapons Ukraine receives from the West, the higher the risk of a “nuclear apocalypse”, Russian news agencies TASS and RIA reported.
Reports from Reuters offices; Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Written by Robert Birsel; Editing by Michael Perry
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