Did pro-Ukrainian fighters capture a Russian town?

World

There is still widespread confusion over reports of an armed raid across the Ukrainian border into Russia, with claims of pro-Ukrainian fighters capturing a town and the use of a tank.

Russia says more than 70 attackers have been killed in the Belgorod region and the remnants of their units pushed back into Ukrainian territory after two days of fighting.

Moscow has blamed “Ukrainian militants” but Kyiv portrayed the alleged incursion as an uprising by Russian partisans and said it had nothing to do with it.

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What has happened in the Belgorod region?

Russian troops and security forces spent a second day fighting the reported incursion from Ukraine, which has centred around the town of Graivoron.

On Monday afternoon, Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported that a group of saboteurs from the Ukrainian armed forces had entered the town, which is located about three miles inside Russia’s border.

Graivoron also came under attack from drones and Ukrainian artillery fire, he said.

Smoke seen over Belgorod
Image:
Smoke seen over the Belgorod region following the reported attack

The Freedom of Russia Legion, a militia comprised of Russian volunteers, claimed to have been involved in an attack in Belgorod.

It said on Twitter it had “completely liberated” the town of Kozinka and forward units had reached the district centre of Graivoron.

On Tuesday afternoon Russia’s defence ministry said the remnants of the units it blamed for the incursion had been forced back into Ukrainian territory.

Sky News has been unable to verify the reports coming out of Belgorod.

Belgorod checkpoint
Image:
Military vehicles seen at a Belgorod checkpoint

Who was behind the alleged attack?

It’s a complicated picture. Russia has blamed the Ukrainian armed forces for the reported border incursion but Kyiv has denied any involvement.

“Ukraine is watching the events in the Belgorod region of Russia with interest and studying the situation, but it has nothing to do with it,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on Twitter.

“As you know, tanks are sold at any Russian military store, and underground guerrilla groups are composed of Russian citizens,” he added.

Defence expert, professor Michael Clarke, said it remains unclear who was behind the attack – and who knew about it.

“The big question is was Ukraine in any way behind it, and if they weren’t behind it, did they know about it,” he told Sky News.

“Or was it as much a surprise to them as it was to the Kremlin?

“I think the Zelenskyy government is too clever to do this,” he added.

Still from a video of a helicopter releasing flares
Image:
Still from a video of a helicopter seen releasing flares

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Who are the Russian partisans accused of raiding Belgorod?

Two groups – the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) and Freedom of Russia Legion – have claimed responsibility.

The Freedom of Russia Legion says it was formed in spring 2022 “out of the wish of Russians to fight in the ranks of the armed forces of Ukraine against Putin’s armed gang”.

It says it cooperates with the Ukrainian armed forces and operates under Ukrainian command.

The Ukrainian military intelligence agency’s spokesperson said on Monday that the attacks in Belgorod only involved Russian citizens and that they were creating a “security zone” to protect Ukrainian civilians. He did not confirm or deny that the forces operating there are a Ukrainian unit.

A video posted by the RVC on Monday showed two men claiming to have captured a Russian armoured personnel carrier.

The Reuters news agency said it was able to identify one of the men as Ilya Bogdanov, a Russian national who received Ukrainian citizenship in 2015 after fighting for Kyiv against Russian-backed forces in Ukraine’s east.

Is the alleged attack important?

Professor Clarke says the reported incursion into Russia isn’t significant in the course of the wider war, but that it potentially has propaganda value.

He says in one way it’s similar to the drone attack on Moscow – “it’s humiliating”.

“On the other hand they kind of get the benefit of saying look this is how we are under attack by the Ukrainians and they want to destroy Russia.”

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