In Belgorod, Russia, anti-Putin militia mounts cross-border incursion

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian officials said Tuesday that a counterterrorism operation has expelled saboteurs from the western region of Belgorod, which borders Ukraine, after militias made up of Russians fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war mounted an attack on a border post and on an office of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

The governor of Belgorod, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said Tuesday that one person was killed and eight were injured in the militia attack.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday afternoon that security forces killed 70 fighters and destroyed four infantry vehicles and five pickup trucks. The ministry’s statement could not be independently verified.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday the cross-border attack was an attempt by Ukraine to distract attention from Russia’s seizure of Bakhmut, the long-embattled city in eastern Ukraine that Russia claimed this week to have finally captured.

After previous incidents, including drone strikes and an armed incursion in the Bryansk region, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered officials to tighten security in Belgorod and other regions adjacent to Ukraine, but the new attack showed that Russia is still incapable of protecting the border zone. Prior security failures have drawn harsh criticism from Russian hard-liners.

The militias, called the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Legion of Free Russia, are composed of ethnic Russian fighters, including Russian citizens, who oppose Putin and say they are working to “liberate” their homeland. Some members of the groups are known to be Russian neo-Nazis or to harbor other extremist views.

The leader of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Denis Kapustin, for example, is a former mixed martial arts fighter with ties to white nationalist groups throughout Europe.

Before-and-after images of the destroyed Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

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The groups, which nominally operate under Ukraine’s military intelligence wing, published dark, grainy videos purportedly filmed during the nighttime raid in the early hours of Monday, with fighters standing next to road signs in the Belgorod region. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the authenticity of the videos.

In one, a voice using the initials of the Russian Volunteer Corps can be heard saying: “The fighters of the RDK have once again crossed the border. Russia will soon be free.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, denied any direct involvement by Kyiv and said the armed groups were acting on their own. Posting on Twitter, Podolyak said Ukraine is watching the events “with interest and studying the situation” — a common response by the government to attacks on Russian territory.

Videos published on Russian social media claimed to show explosions in the region on Monday, including the attack at a Russian border post. Overnight, more videos surfaced claiming to show the attack on FSB buildings. On Tuesday morning, Russian saboteur groups claimed to still be fighting in Belgorod.

The Washington Post verified some of the footage of the attack in Belgorod region, including three videos of what appears to be the saboteur group at Russia’s Kozinka border crossing.

One of the videos shows a soldier with yellow scotch tape markings of the Ukrainian military, next to a damaged building at the Kozinka checkpoint. Another features armored vehicles with Ukrainian military markings and a third, comprising aerial footage, captures plumes of smoke rising from along the highway from Kozinka.

Gladkov, the Belgorod governor, said early Tuesday that Russian forces were “cleansing” the border area of the pro-Ukrainian saboteurs. He asked evacuated residents of Grayvoron, a Russian settlement a few miles from the border with Ukraine, to hold off on returning to their homes until it was safer.

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“There is information that there are two wounded civilians in the settlements which the enemy has entered.” Gladkov wrote on the Telegram messaging platform, apparently confirming that the pro-Ukrainian groups were still active in Belgorod. “So far security forces have not been able to reach them.”

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While Russian and Ukrainian officials confirmed that ethnic-Russian armed groups crossed the border from Ukraine and carried out some kind of strikes, the full scope of the attacks and details of the incidents were not clear.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said it was “highly likely” the attacks took place, adding that Russia would use the incidents to support the Kremlin’s narrative that it is a victim in the war.

The U.S. State Department reiterated that it has made clear to Ukraine that military aid from the United States must not be used in attacks outside Ukraine’s borders but that it is up to Ukraine to decide how to conduct military operations.

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the incidents in Belgorod. On Monday, Yusov told Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne that Russian groups carried out the attack to create a buffer zone to shield Ukrainian civilians from Russian attacks in the border region — a frequent occurrence in Ukrainian areas along the country’s northeastern border.

Peskov told reporters Tuesday that the Belgorod incident is concerning, but he said Putin is not planning to hold a security council meeting about it. “The special military operation is continuing to prevent this from happening in the future,” Peskov said, using Russia’s official euphemism for the war in Ukraine. He added that Russia’s Investigative Committee, a federal law enforcement agency, has opened a criminal case into the Belgorod matter.

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Natalia Abbakumova and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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