Ukraine war: Belgorod incursion could stretch Russia’s defenses

  • Two armed groups claimed responsibility for the attack
  • Kiev mocks the Kremlin’s denial of military involvement
  • A rope for a counterattack against a Russian invasion

LONDON/KYIV, May 24 (Reuters) – A two-day incursion from Ukraine into Russia’s western border regions could force the Kremlin to divert troops from the frontline and Kiev to prepare a major counteroffensive, psychologically attacking Moscow, military analysts said.

Although Kyiv has denied any role, the biggest cross-border offensive from Ukraine since Russia invaded 15 months ago was almost certainly coordinated with Ukraine’s armed forces trying to retake the region, 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 is planning a major counteroffensive to recapture occupied territory, but Russia has built vast fortifications in readiness to its neighbors’ east and south.

The incursion took place far from the heart of the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and about 100 miles (160 km) from the front lines in northern Kharkiv region.

“They have to respond to this and put troops there, and then have a lot of troops all over the border area, even though it’s not in the way of the Ukrainians,” Melvin said.

Russia’s military on Tuesday fired back at militants who stormed its western Belgorod region with armored vehicles, killing more than 70 “Ukrainian nationalists” and pushing the rest back into Ukraine.

Kyiv said the attack was carried out by Russian civilians, calling it a civil, Russian civil unrest. Two groups operating in Ukraine – the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) and the Freedom Brigade of Russia – have claimed responsibility.

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The groups were formed during Russia’s full-scale invasion and have attracted Russian volunteer fighters who want to fight against their own country and overthrow President Vladimir Putin alongside Ukraine.

Mark Galiotti, head of the London-based intelligence consultancy Mayak 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 believe that they can contribute in a small way to the downfall of Putin’s regime. But at the same time, we must realize that these are not independent forces … they are controlled by Ukrainian military intelligence,” he said. said.

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak reiterated Kiev’s position that it had nothing to do with the move.

The U.S. says it does not “direct or encourage” Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory, but it is up to Kyiv to decide how it conducts military operations.

In this handout picture released on May 23, 2023, a view shows damaged buildings in the Belgorod region after anti-terrorist measures introduced due to alleged cross-border infiltration from Ukraine were lifted. Vyacheslav Kladkov of Russia’s Belgorod Region via Telegram/Handout via REUTERS

There have been several similar incursions into Russia in recent months, and while this week’s was the largest known so far, it still pales in comparison to the frontline battles.

Echoes of 2014?

Alexei Baranovsky, a spokesman for the Freedom of Russia Legion’s political wing, told Reuters in Kiev that he could not disclose the number of troops involved in the operation, but that the brigade had a total of four battalions.

Baranovsky denied that there were major losses, and he dismissed Russian reports of heavy casualties as misinformation.

He said the unit was part of Ukraine’s international corps and therefore part of its armed forces, but denied the infiltration was coordinated with Ukrainian authorities.

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“These are the first steps in the main objective of overthrowing Putin’s regime by force of arms. There are no other alternatives,” he said.

Galiotti said the incursion appeared to be a “shaping” operation on the Ukrainian battlefield ahead of a planned counteroffensive by Kiev.

“… This is really an opportunity to do two things. One is to unsettle the Russians, make them worry about the possibility of an uprising among their own people. But second, force the Russians to disband their forces,” he said.

Melvin noted that the move also helped boost morale in Ukraine.

Kyiv officials have echoed the Kremlin’s rhetoric surrounding Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Podoliak blamed the Belgorod incursion on “underground guerilla groups” composed of Russian civilians: “You know, tanks are sold in any Russian military store.”

The comment seemed to echo Putin’s response in 2014 when asked about the presence of men in unmarked Russian military uniforms in Crimea: “You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.”

On social media, Ukrainians referred to what they called the “Belgorod People’s Republic” – a nod to events in eastern Ukraine in 2014, when pro-Russia militias declared “people’s republics” in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

At the start of the invasion in February 2022, Ukrainians also circulated a video of President Volodymyr Zelensky giving his famous “I’m here” video speech from Kiev. But instead of the presidential office in Kyiv, the welcome sign was shown to the city in the background. Belgorod.

Additional reporting by Max Hunter in Kiev and Agnieszka Bikulicka-Wilczewska in Warsaw; Editing by Mike Collette-White and Mark Heinrich

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