- Two armed groups claim attacks
- kyiv parodies past Kremlin denials of military involvement
- Preparing the counter-offensive against the Russian invasion
LONDON/KIEV, May 24 (Reuters) – A two-day incursion by Ukraine into Russia’s western border regions could force the Kremlin to divert troops from front lines as Kiev prepares a major counteroffensive and carry a psychological blow to Moscow, according to military analysts.
Although Kiev has denied any role, the biggest cross-border raid from Ukraine since Russia invaded 15 months ago has almost certainly been coordinated with Ukraine’s armed forces as they prepare to attempt to retake the territory, the experts added.
“The Ukrainians are trying to pull the Russians in different directions to open gaps. The Russians are forced to send reinforcements,” said Neil Melvin, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
Ukraine says it plans to mount a major counteroffensive to retake occupied territory, but Russia has built extensive fortifications east and south of its neighbor in anticipation.
The incursion took place far from the epicenter of the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and about 160 km from the front lines in the northern Kharkiv region.
“They’ll have to respond to that and send troops over there and then have a lot of troops all along the border area, although that might not be the way the Ukrainians are coming in,” Melvin said.
The Russian military said on Tuesday it had routed militants who had attacked its western region of Belgorod with armored vehicles the day before, killing more than 70 “Ukrainian nationalists” and pushing the rest back into Ukraine.
kyiv said the attack was carried out by Russian citizens, calling it an internal Russian conflict. Two groups operating in Ukraine – the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) and the Freedom Legion of Russia – have claimed responsibility.
The groups were created during the full-scale invasion of Russia and attracted Russian volunteer fighters eager to fight their own country alongside Ukraine and overthrow President Vladimir Putin.
Mark Galeotti, head of London-based consultancy Mayak Intelligence and author of several books on the Russian military, said both groups included anti-Kremlin Russians ranging from liberals and anarchists to neo-Nazis.
“They hope that in some way they can contribute to the downfall of Putin’s regime. But at the same time, we have to realize that these are not independent forces… They are controlled by Ukrainian military intelligence,” he said. he added. said.
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak repeated kyiv’s position that it had nothing to do with the operation.
The United States says it does not “allow or encourage” Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory, but that it is up to kyiv to decide how it conducts its military operations.
Several similar incursions into Russia have taken place in recent months, and while this week’s was the largest known to date, it is still small compared to frontline battles.
ECHOES OF 2014?
Alexei Baranovsky, spokesman for the political wing of Russia’s Freedom Legion, told Reuters in Kyiv that he could not disclose the number of troops involved in the operation, but the legion numbered four. battalions in total.
Baranovsky denied that there had been any heavy casualties, and he dismissed Russian reports of heavy casualties as misinformation.
He said the unit was part of Ukraine’s International Legion and therefore part of its armed forces, but denied that the incursion was coordinated with Ukrainian authorities.
“These are the first steps towards the main goal of overthrowing Putin’s regime by armed force. There are no other alternatives,” he said.
Galeotti said the incursion looked like a Ukrainian “battlefield shaping” operation ahead of kyiv’s planned counteroffensive.
“…It’s really a chance to do two things. The first is to shake the Russians up, to worry them about the possibility of uprisings among their own people. But secondly, to force the Russians to disperse their troops,” a- he said.
Melvin noted that the operation also served to boost morale in Ukraine.
Kyiv officials emulated the Kremlin’s rhetoric regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 when it initially denied that the troops involved were Russian.
Podolyak blamed the Belgorod incursion on “underground guerrilla groups” including Russian citizens and said, “As you know, tanks are sold at any Russian military store.”
The remark seemed to echo Putin’s response in 2014 when asked about the presence of men wearing Russian military uniforms without insignia in Crimea: “You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform”.
On social media, Ukrainians referred to what they called the “People’s Republic of Belgorod” – a nod to events in eastern Ukraine in 2014, when Russian-backed militias declared “people’s republics” in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukrainians also circulated a video of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy giving his famous “I am here” video speech from Kyiv at the start of the invasion in February 2022. But instead of the presidential office in Kyiv, the background showed the welcome sign to the city of Belgorod.
Additional reporting by Max Hunder in Kyiv and Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska in Warsaw; edited by Mike Collett-White and Mark Heinrich
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