A striking operation was carried out: a “counter-invasion” into Russian territory, in the Belgorod region, across the border from the Ukrainian Kharkiv region. Let’s dispel a myth right away: this was not an operation with an actual military objective. But war is not just about victories on the battlefield: fear, suspicion and even paranoia are weapons that governments use with no holds barred.
A few months ago, we met some of the military personnel involved in this assault, at a secret base in eastern Ukraine, near the front. Leading them was an ex-Russian deputy, Ilya Ponomarev, and the speeches many of them made with their faces covered looked like the usual proclamations from a group of militiamen who had gone across the border into exile. On Monday, however, one of them, Cesar, was filmed announcing the “liberation” of a Russian village and threatening the Kremlin.
Even though by midday on Tuesday the Russian Defense Ministry was saying that the “nationalists” who had infiltrated Russian Federation territory had been stopped and defeated, there are still many questions and unclear points about this affair, which had at least two protagonists: on the one hand, the armed groups which physically carried out the attack, with ample supply of photo and video material, which go by the name of the Freedom for Russia Legion (Svoboda Rossiy) and the Russian Volunteer Corps (Russkiy Dobrovolcheskiy Korpus, or RDK), known organizations which might also have been involved in other operations on Russian territory in the past months; and, on the other hand, the Ukrainian military intelligence service, the GRU, run by Kyrylo Budanov, of growing fame.
Let’s start with the facts. Late Monday evening, images of armed clashes a few kilometers from the Ukrainian border, well within Russian territory, began to circulate online. Belgorod, we will recall, has been the target of attacks and sabotage, both on civilian and military infrastructure, for months. At first, Kyiv would always deny responsibility, but that was in another phase of the conflict; later, the GRU chief said that “we have killed and will continue to kill Russians everywhere in the world.” Attacks in the region became increasingly frequent, leading to power outages, a derailed train and the shooting down of five Russian aircraft.
On Monday night, Svoboda Rossiy issued a dry statement in which it claimed to have crossed the border and entered the town of Kozinka, as well as sent units into the town of Grayvoron. “We are Russians just like you,” they wrote on Twitter. “We are distinguished only by the fact that we no longer wanted to justify the actions of criminals in power and took up arms to defend our and your freedom. But today is the time for everyone to take responsibility for their future. It’s time for the Kremlin’s dictatorship to end.”
Regarding the vehicles used for the raid, it appears that at least two tanks and several armored vehicles, including the famous Humvees and others, came from the U.S. supplies to Ukraine. This is rather odd, and not for conspiracy-minded reasons. We know that Western countries, with Washington leading the way, have been supplying Kyiv with armaments for months, in broad daylight. Given that the two groups of so-called Russian “dissidents” are, in some form or another, included within the ranks of the Ukrainian army, there’s nothing odd about them receiving some of those supplies. But why display them proudly to the whole world in this operation, when the one thing the Biden administration has been stressing for many months is that they will provide weapons as long as they aren’t used to attack Russian territory?
Let’s make a further distinction: the Svoboda Rossiy Legion and the RDK are different organizations, even though they apparently acted together. The former is a creation of Ilya Ponomarev, a figure with a complicated history: a businessman and former member of the Russian Communist Party, the only Duma deputy to have voted against the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and to abstain on the law against “gay propaganda.” Later charged with embezzlement and impeached (all politically motivated, he says), Ponomarev fled to Ukraine in 2016, obtained citizenship in 2019 and joined the territorial defense battalions soon after the Russian invasion.
In an interview in Le Figaro in February he said: “Let’s say I’m active in the high political spheres to facilitate certain things, and the formation of this unit is part of it.” According to him, between 500 and 1,000 soldiers, all Russians, are now part of Svoboda Rossiy, and another battalion is in training. Their goal, “after Ukraine’s victory,” is to continue to Moscow, “but without the regular Ukrainian army, or any other army.” However, “since we have come to fight for them, we will need Ukrainians to come and fight with us.”
The RDK, on the other hand, is led by the neo-Nazi Denis Kasputin, with a checkered past. Known in Russian nationalist circles for his extremist views, he lived for years in Germany before moving to Ukraine to fight against Moscow’s army. Kasputin claimed responsibility for the raid in Bryansk, also on Russian territory, and is suspected to have been behind the assassination attempt on Kostantin Malofeev, a senior TV executive close to the most warmongering circles on the Russian right.
As is obvious, the makeup of these groups is highly heterogeneous: there is certainly a part of their members who are dissidents, but one of the strongest distinguishing features is undoubtedly nationalism. This is a political vision that is opposed to Putin, but that certainly doesn’t make it freedom-loving.
For its part, Moscow calls them “terrorists,” claiming it has killed “more than 70” of them and accusing Kyiv of orchestrating a military operation with the “Russian partisans” as a front, in order to spread panic among the population.
What is obvious is that there was no one to stop the self-styled partisans at the border. Now the government will have to deploy new troops to the area and, perhaps, divert men from the active fronts.
Moreover, Wagner chief Prigozhin is waiting in the wings, and now he will have the perfect opportunity to accuse the Ministry of Defense of not protecting the Russian population and to pose once again as the savior of the homeland.