It took Russia two days to quell the most serious cross-border incursion launched from Ukraine since the start of the conflict, 15 months ago. On Monday it declared the Belgorod oblast in a "terrorist operation regime" and yesterday Tuesday it had to use aviation and artillery to repel an attack that Moscow attributes to Ukrainian saboteurs, but that groups of Russian anti-Putin volunteers have claimed responsibility for. they fight together with Kyiv against the Kremlin.
The Russian Defense Ministry assured yesterday that it had defeated the saboteurs. According to Moscow, dozens of them ended up dead, while the rest fled to the neighboring country.
"They have been expelled from the Belgorod region to the territory of Ukraine," said the ministry's spokesman, Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov. “The nationalist armed groups were surrounded and eliminated. More than 70 Ukrainian terrorists have been liquidated”. As for those who fled to the neighboring country, the Russian artillery has continued to attack them "until their total elimination", he added in his daily war part.
Hours earlier Dimitri Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, admitted that this attack was "causing deep concern." But he took advantage of this circumstance to add one more reason to the Russian argument that justifies Russian intervention in Ukraine. The military campaign in the neighboring country, he said, must continue to prevent the repetition of this type of enemy operations, he maintained.
On 22 May a group of armed men entered the Graivoron district, in the area of Belgorod Oblast bordering Ukraine. Russia denounced that it was a raid by saboteurs of the Ukrainian armed forces. More than ten towns suffered bombardments.
As a consequence, the Russian authorities imposed a terrorist operation regime in the region. By Tuesday morning, Russian forces had launched a "clean-up operation," as the regional governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, called it. According to him, the attack from Ukraine has caused 13 injuries among the civilian population.
Ukraine denied having anything to do with it and attributed the action to two groups of Russian citizens opposed to the Kremlin who are voluntarily fighting alongside the Ukrainian army, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Russian Freedom Legion. The goal is to create "a security zone" that will protect Ukrainian civilians, Andri Yusov of Ukraine's Directorate of Military Intelligence said on Monday.
The two formations later claimed on Telegram and other social networks combat actions in Belgorod and Briansk, Russian border regions with Ukraine.
In a message posted on Telegram yesterday, the Russian Freedom Legion wrote that the attack "has once again debunked the myth that Russian citizens are safe and Russia is strong." In addition, he did not rule out future actions.
In fact, this week's raid is already the third raid, the Russian Volunteer Corps said on Monday. The previous ones were smaller. The first occurred on March 2, through the neighboring Briansk region. The Russian saboteurs who claimed responsibility for the attack further stated that they will not stop until Putin's “regime” is defeated.
The Kremlin rejects this version. Asked about the participation of Russians, Peskov assured yesterday that they were all "Ukrainian fighters from Ukraine."
“There are many ethnic Russians who live in the Ukraine, but they are still Ukrainian fighters,” he replied.
Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar responded by saying: "We are not waging war on foreign territories." And she yesterday called the spoilers "patriots of Russia" who "revolt against the Putin regime."
For the Kremlin, the incursion into Belgorod hides a diversionary maneuver with which Ukraine wants to divert attention from what happened over the weekend in Bakhmut, and minimize the political effect of the loss of that city, which Russia calls Artiomovsk.
On Sunday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that its troops had taken Bakhmut after eight months of fighting, and Putin congratulated both the Wagner Group mercenaries, who spearheaded the Russian offensive, and the Russian regular forces.
The Ukrainian authorities, however, deny having lost that enclave and assure that the battle continues.
Although he avoided directly referring to the skirmishes in Belgorod, Vladimir Putin admitted that "Russia is living in difficult times." But he added that the country has never really had it easy.
The Russian president took advantage of his speech at a state awards ceremony in the Kremlin to re-emphasize the official Russian version of the current conflict. That is to say, that Russia did not initiate any war, but on the contrary, what it does is try to stop it. “They often tell us and we hear that Russia has started a war. No! Russia, with the help of the military operation, is trying to put an end to this war that they are waging against us, against our people,” Putin said.
One of the arguments of the Russian leader when he sent his army to Ukraine on February 24, 2022 was the need to defend the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk, the provinces that make up the Ukrainian region of Donbass. Due to a “historical injustice”, Putin said yesterday, part of the Russian people was left outside the borders of the historical Russian state, but that did not mean that they ceased to be Russian. "Russia does and will certainly do everything to defend them," he declared.