Russia has said more than 70 attackers were killed in its operation to repel cross-border raiders who entered the country’s Belgorod region from Ukraine and battled with Russian forces for an estimated 24 hours before retreating from Russian territory.
Russia said it had deployed jets and artillery on Tuesday to destroy the armed groups that penetrated the border region in the most audacious attack on Russian territory since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine last year.
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Authorities said 13 people were injured by artillery and mortar fire during the fighting and that a woman died during evacuations on Monday. A second civilian was reported killed in the village of Kozinka.
Nine border villages were evacuated during the fighting, according to Russian officials.
“In total, more than 70 militants, four armoured vehicles and five pickups were destroyed. Today, the [counter-terrorist operation] has been cancelled in the Belgorod region,” Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported on Wednesday, referring to the attackers as a “Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group”.
Russia’s defence ministry spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, said local troops, air strikes and artillery had routed the attackers and what remained of the force was pushed “back to the territory of Ukraine, where they continued to be hit by fire until they were completely eliminated”.
Members of two anti-Kremlin groups, the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), claimed responsibility while Kyiv denied any involvement with the raid.
“We are not waging war on foreign territories,” Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said on Tuesday.
In a video purportedly released by the Freedom of Russia Legion on Monday, a camouflaged spokesman, surrounded by armed men in fatigues, said: “Russia will be free!” – a slogan frequently used by Russian opposition activists.
Little is known about the two groups or their ties with the Ukrainian military. The RVC was founded last August and reportedly consists mostly of anti-Putin far-right Russian fighters who have links with Ukrainian far-right groups.
Moscow-based journalist Yulia Shapovalova told Al Jazeera that the Kremlin believe all the attackers were “Ukrainian militants”.
‘Everything is under control’
Belgorod in southwest Russia is located about 80km (45 miles) north of the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. The region is known for hosting Russian military assets, including fuel and ammunition depots. Belgorod was included in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order last year to increase the state of readiness for attacks and improve defences.
Similar to Russia’s neighbouring Bryansk region and other border areas, Belgorod has witnessed sporadic spillover from the war in Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to say on Tuesday how many attackers were involved in the assault or comment on why efforts to put down the attackers took so long.
The governor of the Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said the raid targeted the rural area around Graivoron, a town about 5km (3 miles) from the border.
The regional governor complained in a video late on Tuesday that federal authorities’ claims for the past year that “everything is under control” did not ring true in light of the cross-border incursion and earlier attacks. He appealed again to the Kremlin to strengthen defences in the region.
Russia’s military reaction to the raid – described by the Institute for the Study of War as a “very small and localised undertaking” – was “highly disproportionate” to the scale of the attack, the Washington DC-based think tank said.
“Russian forces should not have required significant reinforcements – or the involvement of a colonel general – to repulse a raid conducted by reportedly 13 armoured vehicles,” the ISW said on Wednesday.
The #Russian reaction to the raid in the information space and in the reported military activities appears to be a highly disproportionate response to a very small and localized undertaking. 2/2https://t.co/ujMqJTaBZi pic.twitter.com/BTbqLfYPAq
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) May 24, 2023
On Wednesday, Gladkov reported on his Telegram channel that a drone had dropped an explosive device on a road in Belgorod damaging a car, though no one was injured in the attack, according to initial information.
A Russian bomb squad and emergency workers were at the scene of the attack, Russia TASS news agency reported, citing the governor’s Telegram channel. In a separate post, the governor reported that a drone had been shot down over Belgorod, though it was unknown if that drone was responsible for the attack on the road or if it was a different drone, TASS reported.
The Russian news portal RBK, quoting unidentified sources in Russia’s regional interior ministry and territorial police, said that during the cross-border incursion, Graivoron came under heavy shelling that lasted about five hours early on Monday. After that, tanks fired at the Graivoron border checkpoint while the adjacent village of Kozinka came under mortar and rocket fire, RBK said, citing the same sources.
The attacking force was made up of 10 armoured vehicles and an unspecified number of troops, RBK said.
Gladkov also reported that fire from the Ukrainian side of the border on Tuesday hit the Borisovka area, about 20km (20 miles) northeast of Graivoron. No casualties were reported, he said without elaborating on the incident.
The attack on Russia’s Belgorod comes ahead of a widely expected Ukrainian offensive and Russia reinforcing hundreds of kilometres of front lines with tank barriers, trenches and troops.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Ukrainian troops on the front line in the eastern region of Donetsk on Tuesday, where Russian forces have concentrated their efforts to capture territory.
“Every day on the battlefield, Ukrainian marines prove that they are a powerful force that destroys the enemy, liberates Ukrainian land and performs the most difficult tasks in the most difficult conditions,” Zelenskyy said, announcing the creation of a Ukrainian marine corps.