As attacks by Ukraine-aligned insurgents on Russian territory stretched into a third day on Wednesday, concerns grew in Russia that the rare border incursion could create further problems on the spot. of battle – and this has increased calls for the military to spend more resources defending against such assaults. .
A group made up of Russian anti-Kremlin fighters, the Free Russia Legion, claimed responsibility for the attack that began on Monday, which produced the heaviest fighting on Russian territory since the start of the war.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the attackers had been pushed back across the border into Ukraine. But violence in the Russian border region, Belgorod, continued overnight, with “a large number of attacks” from drones and an attack that damaged a gas pipeline and caused a small fire, according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.
“The night was not entirely calm,” Gladkov wrote on Telegram on Wednesday morning, adding that houses, cars and office buildings in the city of Belgorod and other settlements had been damaged.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said on Tuesday that Moscow was “deeply concerned” about the attack, while using violence to try to further justify Russia’s 15-month invasion of Ukraine. . However, he said President Vladimir V. Putin would not convene an emergency session of his Security Council.
The Security Council convened after a brief outbreak of border violence in Bryansk in March, when soldiers led by the same group briefly took control of a Russian village before being pushed back into Ukraine.
But some ardently pro-Russian voices have openly expressed concern that the Belgorod attacks will create new battlefield challenges for Russia, whose only significant military victory in the past nine months has come in recent days – claiming control of the ruins of the city of Bakhmut.
Igor Girkin, a military blogger and former Russian paramilitary commander in Ukraine, wrote that, if the news of the border attacks were true, “then the inevitable creation of a continuous front along this border, which will have to be filled in from somewhere with combined arms units and formations of the Russian Armed Forces, is on the agenda.
The need to place more troops along the border, further stretching Russian forces, would benefit Ukraine, concluded Mr. Girkin, who calls himself Igor Strelkov.
Even before the attack that began on Monday, a group of Belgorod residents shared a video calling on the government to give them weapons to defend themselves against a possible incursion. The location of the video could not immediately be independently confirmed.
“Our city and region have long ceased to be defended,” one man read on a newspaper, his hands shaking slightly as he stood in front of a group of other men. “We fully understand that before the offensive led by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, our forces will not fully protect us. The front line is huge.
While residents of the Belgorod region have long lived with the sounds of nearby explosions caused by war, the attack in the past two days could heighten wider Russian fears and possibly even hurt Ms. Putin, said Ivan Fomin, a Russia analyst with the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
“Some of the more hawkish segments of Russian society will see these attacks as another sign of the Kremlin’s weakness and incompetence,” he said. “Thus, Putin may potentially lose some popularity among those who strongly support the war.”
However, depending on how the Kremlin and Russian state media portray the attacks, the incursion could also have a rallying effect around the flag, Fomin said.
“At the moment Putin is struggling to explain why he started this war, what his goals are and why the Russians should go and risk their lives in Ukraine,” he said. “But if he can illustrate the infiltration of Russian territory by Ukrainian sabotage groups, it might make it easier for him to sell a narrative about Russia being attacked and fighting back.”
Mr Peskov sought to quell rumors that the Russians would take up arms against their fellow citizens, saying the fighters were Ukrainians and not Russians. But the group that claimed the attack said it was made up of Russians who “finally returned home”, as they said on Telegram.
Yuriy Karin, an analyst with Information Resistance, a group that debunks Russian propaganda, said Russia’s hesitant official response to the attack showed “shock” that an incursion had taken place.
“Russian propaganda was in denial,” he said.
Andrew E. Kramer contributed report.