Russian Volunteer Corps and Freedom of Russia Legion “Liberate” Russian Territory in Belgorod Region
On May 22, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion announced that they had crossed the border into Russia's Belgorod region and were “liberating” settlements from the current Russian regime. The groups claimed responsibility for an attack in which dozens of Russian soldiers were killed, and they say they will continue to liberate Russian territory. Ukrainian military intelligence noted that the groups were “conducting an operation in Russia's Belgorod region,” which is “a consequence of the Putin regime's aggressive policies and the invasion of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory.”
The two groups are opposed to President Putin and are made up of ethnic Russian fighters, including Russian citizens, who say they are working to “liberate” their homeland. Certain individuals within the groups are recognized as Russian neo-Nazis or possess other forms of extremist ideologies. While both militias do indeed recruit disaffected Russian nationals, both also co-ordinate their activities with Ukraine’s military-intelligence agency. However, these groups are not formally linked to the Ukrainian government.
Western countries, including the United States, have provided weaponry to Ukraine on the condition that they are not utilized to attack objectives within Russia. However, Russia has accused Ukraine of being behind the Belgorod attacks, which Ukraine denies. The US is “skeptical” that American-provided military equipment to Ukraine was used in an outbreak of fighting in the Russian territory of Belgorod, the State Department said, adding that Washington does not encourage or enable Ukraine to strike inside of Russia.
After two days of fighting, Russia has reported that over 70 attackers were killed in the region and their units were forced back into Ukrainian territory. As Kyiv gears up for a counteroffensive, “military strategists say Ukraine is likely to pursue operations that would knock Russia off balance and force them to divert forces that would otherwise be used to man defensive lines in Ukraine,” The Wall Street Journal reports. According to analysts, the cross-border attack had a psychological impact on Russia and was intended to establish a secure area to prevent the shelling of Ukrainian civilians from across the border.
Ukraine-supported militias have previously ventured into Russian territory before. Last year, the Free Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps were established under unclear circumstances. However, they gained attention in March when they led an invasion from Ukraine into Bryansk, a neighboring area. Without providing any evidence, Russia alleged that two non-military individuals were killed in the assault.
For more than eight months, Russia has been sending droves of conscripts — young men serving their mandatory year of military service but officially left out of combat — to the Ukrainian border in the Belgorod region. At the beginning of the war, the country’s leadership, including President Vladimir Putin himself, promised that no conscripts would be involved in the “special military operation.” However, while the Belgorod conscripts aren’t officially participating in the war, they regularly come under fire; many have suffered injuries, and at least seven have been killed.
Despite Russia's claims of fortifying its defense in bordering areas, the incursion implies the opposite. Belgorod Oblast authorities reportedly spent nearly 10 billion rubles (about $125 million) on “the construction of protective structures” in 2022, Russian Interfax news reported in February, citing the regional construction minister Oksana Kozlitina. On Monday, Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson for the Kremlin, stated that Ukraine's cross-border attack was an effort to divert focus from Russia's seizure of Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been embroiled in conflict for a long time. Russia announced this week that it had finally taken control of the city.
While preparing for the upcoming offensive, Ukraine may conduct additional border incursions aimed at humiliating the Kremlin and compelling Russia to reduce the size of its invading forces. Ukraine's Western allies would likely disapprove of any attempts to invade deep into Russia or establish footholds on its soil, but they may not object to further border raids that could lead to more destabilization. The poorly prepared, badly mauled, and increasingly demoralized Russian invasion force is currently bracing to face a major Ukrainian counteroffensive that has been under preparation for the past half year.
0. “Explosions heard in Russian Belgorod Oblast again: Authorities claim it is air defence” Yahoo Life, 25 May. 2023, https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/explosions-heard-russian-belgorod-oblast-125739165.html
1. “In Belgorod, Russia, anti-Putin militias mount cross-border incursion” The Washington Post, 23 May. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/05/23/belgorod-attack-border-ukraine-russia/
2. “Who are the militias raiding Russia's Belgorod region?” The Economist, 25 May. 2023, https://www.economist.com/europe/2023/05/25/who-are-the-militias-raiding-russias-belgorod-region
3. “State Department ‘skeptical’ that U.S. weapons used in alleged Belgorod uprising” The Hill, 23 May. 2023, https://thehill.com/policy/international/4017536-state-department-skeptical-us-weapons-belgorod/
4. “Russia-Ukraine updates: Belgorod attackers ‘pushed back’” Al Jazeera English, 23 May. 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/liveblog/2023/5/23/russia-ukraine-live-news-attacks-on-belgorod-region-continue
5. “Ukraine war: Russia accused of ‘staging' pictures showing captured US-made vehicles in Belgorod” Sky News, 24 May. 2023, https://news.sky.com/story/ukraine-war-russia-accused-of-staging-pictures-showing-captured-us-made-vehicles-in-belgorod-12888472
6. “Anti-Kremlin Russians fighting for Ukraine stage attack inside Russia” The Week, 23 May. 2023, https://theweek.com/russo-ukrainian-war/1023727/anti-kremlin-russians-fighting-for-ukraine-stage-extraordinary-attack
7. “‘They’re stationed in front like targets’” Meduza, 24 May. 2023, https://meduza.io/en/feature/2023/05/24/they-stand-in-front-like-targets
8. “Belgorod incursion: Meet the anti-Kremlin militia behind the attack inside Russia” Kyiv Independent, 25 May. 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/belgorod-incursion-meet-the-anti-kremlin-militia-behind-the-attack-inside-russia
9. “Anti-Putin militia claims to have overrun village in Russia border region of Belgorod” The Guardian, 22 May. 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/22/anti-kremlin-militia-freedom-of-russia-legion-overrun-russian-border-village-kozinka
10. “Belgorod raid sparks border alarm for Russia ahead of Ukrainian offensive” Atlantic Council, 24 May. 2023, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/belgorod-raid-sparks-border-alarm-for-russia-ahead-of-ukrainian-offensive/