Clashes erupted Monday in Russian villages near the Ukrainian border, according to local officials and verified videos. The Russian regional governor said a Ukrainian sabotage group entered Russian territory, while kyiv said anti-Kremlin Russian supporters were behind the attacks.
A video posted on the Telegram messaging app and verified by The New York Times showed smoke rising near the Grayvoron border crossing, north of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. It was not immediately possible to determine the cause.
Regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said that a Ukrainian sabotage group entered Russian territory near the city of Belgorod Monday morning and that the Russian army, the border service and the intelligence agency “were taking the necessary measures to eliminate the enemy”. On Monday evening, Mr. Gladkov announced that he was putting the region on a counterterrorism footing, establishing temporary movement restrictions and suspending activities involving hazardous substances.
The Ukrainian government generally follows a policy of deliberate ambiguity on strikes inside Russian territory. On Monday, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, said kyiv was monitoring events in Belgorod. “with interest and studying the situation, but that has nothing to do with it.”
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said the perpetrators were “pro-opposition Russian citizens”. Andrii Yusov, the representative of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, said Ukrainian media Hromadske that Russian partisans were working to create “a certain security zone in Russia’s border regions bordering Ukraine”.
A group calling itself the Free Russian Legion claimed to be behind the attacks. The group said its ranks were made up of Russians and called on like-minded compatriots to join their efforts. The group later said it had “liberated” the border village of Kozinka along with another pro-Ukrainian group known as the Russian Volunteer Corps. These claims could not be independently confirmed.
Battles took place Monday afternoon at several locations between the border and the town of Grayvoron, six miles away, according to reports posted on Telegram
Mr Gladkov initially played down reports of violence along the border, saying a ‘massive information attack’ was underway, and sought to calm residents’ nerves in a video posted on Monday morning . He later said that at least two people were injured.
The Kremlin also sought to downplay the incident, with its spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov saying TASS news agency that it was a Ukrainian attempt to “divert attention from the situation” in Bakhmut, the eastern town that Russian forces claimed over the weekend to have captured after a nearly one-year battle year.
It would not be the first time that pro-Ukrainian fighters have attacked villages across the Russian border. In early March, the Russian volunteer corps claims he had organized a brief incursion into villages in Bryansk, another Russian region on the Ukrainian border. The Russian Volunteer Corps is led by a Russian nationalist in exile and is part of a motley collection of Russian citizens’ groups who oppose Mr Putin’s regime and took up arms for the Ukrainian cause during the 15-month war.
Oleksandr Chubko contributed report.