The fighters who claimed responsibility for a rare assault just across the Ukrainian border in Russia’s Belgorod region are members of a volunteer unit made up of Russian citizens who fought with Ukrainian forces against their own country.
The Free Russian Legion, as the volunteer unit is called, was created last August to allow Russians opposed to the Kremlin war in Ukraine to take up arms and fight alongside Ukrainians. The fighting by these anti-Kremlin Russian volunteers has mostly been confined to the front lines in Ukraine, mainly in and around Bakhmut.
That changed this week, when the group announced that its fighters, along with Russians from another group called the Russian Volunteer Corps, had crossed the border and “liberated” several settlements inside Russia. On Tuesday, the Free Russian Legion said fighting in the Belgorod region was continuing, although the Russian Defense Ministry said all fighters not killed had been pushed back to Ukraine.
“This is the first Legion operation on Russian territory, and in the future the scale of our actions will only increase,” said a Russian fighter, who wears the call sign Caesar and participated in the operation, in a text. message.
Cesar, who is 50 and a soldier in the Free Russian Legion, answered questions sent through a group press officer. The Russian Volunteer Corps, which claimed to have joined the Free Russian Legion in this week’s operation, took responsibility for a previous, more limited incursion into Russia in March.
The involvement of the Ukrainian military in the operation is unclear. The Free Russian Legion operates under the Ukrainian International Legion, a fighting force that includes units made up of American and British volunteers, as well as Belarusians, Georgians and others. It is overseen by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and commanded by Ukrainian officers.
A senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal details of the mission inside Russia, said the Ukrainian military was largely acting in a support role, protecting the border in the region in the event of a Russian counter-attack. No Ukrainian fighters entered Russian territory, the official said.
There were casualties in the units that took part in the operation, the official said, but not enough to affect their combat readiness. The manager would not provide further details.
Until recently, the Free Russian Legion had received little attention, partly to protect soldiers and their families from Russian reprisals, but also due to Ukraine’s reluctance to highlight exploits. soldiers whose country of origin had killed so many Ukrainians.
Several hundred Russians have been deployed to front lines in eastern Ukraine, officials said, but the Ukrainian military has not disclosed exactly how many Russians are fighting on the Ukrainian side.
The motivations of Russians fighting for Ukraine vary. In interviews earlier this year, some said they were already living in Ukraine when the war started and felt the need to defend their adopted homeland. Others, often without military experience, entered Ukraine after the war began and signed up to fight.
Joining is not easy, Russian soldiers said. After completing a detailed application, they undergo several rounds of background checks and pass a polygraph test. Distrust among Ukrainians is high. Russian intelligence agents have repeatedly tried to infiltrate the Free Russian Legion, Ukrainian officials said.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that the fighters had been pushed back and dozens of people had been killed.
But Caesar said fighting continued all day Tuesday and a Russian infantry company was wiped out. His claims could not be independently confirmed. The senior Ukrainian official said the military was awaiting confirmation, including drone video, of the fate of the Russian infantry company.
“The purpose of the operation started yesterday was the creation of a demilitarized zone between Russia and Ukraine, the elimination of fighters who serve the Putin regime and a demonstration to the Russian people that it is possible to create a resistance and fight against Putin’s regime inside Russia,” Caesar wrote. “These goals were successfully achieved.”