RIGA, Latvia — The Kremlin on Thursday blamed Ukraine for an attack in two villages in the Bryansk region of western Russia, in which President Vladimir Putin said assailants had “opened fire on civilians” and the Bryansk governor said two people were killed and hostages were taken.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, initially issued a statement saying that “measures are being taken to eliminate armed Ukrainian nationalists who violated the state border.”
But two fighters claiming to be members of a far-right Russian anti-Putin nationalist group fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war claimed responsibility, declaring “Death to the Kremlin tyrant” in a video filmed outside a medical clinic in the village of Lyuberchane, near Bryansk, close to the Ukrainian border. The group calls itself the Russian Volunteer Corps.
At 9:30 a.m., Alexander Bogomaz, the governor of Bryansk, posted a statement on his Telegram channel saying that Ukrainian saboteurs had crossed into Russia and opened fire on a car, killing one person and injuring a 10-year-old child. Later Thursday, he said two adults were killed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin was receiving constant updates. Shortly afterward, the president appeared at a public event via videoconference and said: “They opened fire on civilians. They saw that it was a civilian car and that children were sitting there. These are the kind of people who set out to deprive us of historical memory, history, traditions and language. But they won’t succeed. We will finish them off.”
Putin has previously labeled incidents as terrorism that seemed to be retaliation for Russia’s invasion, including an explosion in October on the Crimean Bridge, which connects Russia to the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Mykhailo Podolyak, the adviser to Zelensky, accused Russia of carrying out a provocation. Ukrainian military officials said the Russian Volunteer Corps was “independent” and that Ukraine’s armed forces do not carry out combat operations in Russia.
“The story about [the Ukrainian] sabotage group in [Russia] is a classic deliberate provocation,” Podolyak wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “[Russia] wants to scare its people to justify the attack on another country and growing poverty after the year of war.”
Putin canceled a planned trip and called an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council on Friday in response to the attack, Peskov said.
The attack, if confirmed to have been carried out by the Russian Volunteer Corps, underscores the still-escalating danger of a chaotic war with paramilitary groups of disparate ideologies fighting on each side and the lines of command and communication often unclear.
The incident came two days after a series of drone attacks on Russia, including one within about 60 miles of Moscow, which Russia blamed on Ukraine. Podolyak similarly denied any connection to the drones, saying Russia was suffering the consequences of internal strife.
On Tuesday, in response to the drone incidents, Putin ordered the FSB to step up internal surveillance and tighten security along the nation’s borders, and Thursday’s incursion appeared to raise new questions about Russia’s ability to protect its border regions. A number of attacks have been conducted on Russian territory in recent months, including the targeting of a strategic military air base multiple times last year. Putin told the FSB Board on Tuesday that Russia’s border “must be guarded safely.”
Throughout Thursday, Russian state media outlets carried an assortment of murky reports of the incident.
The Tass news agency, quoting an unnamed law enforcement official, reported that clashes had broken out between Russian forces and several dozen Ukrainian fighters.
Tass later reported that the armed group had left Russia, quoting unnamed witnesses. The FSB said numerous explosive devices were found in the area and were being defused. The incursion follows an incident in December in which the FSB said four saboteurs, carrying weapons and explosives, were killed by Russian forces after infiltrating into Russia from Ukraine.
In their claim of responsibility, the Russian Volunteer Corps fighters held up a dark flag bearing a shield and a sword.
“We came here not as a diversionary group; we are a liberation army that came to its own land,” an armed man who appeared to be the group’s founder, Denis Kapustin, said in the video. “Unlike Putin’s army, butchers and rapists, we do not fight civilians. We came here to free you. We urge you to take up arms and fight Putin’s bloody regime.”
Kapustin said the group would post a video of “our adventures” in Russia at a later point, without detailing the group’s actions. He could not be reached for comment.
Russian opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev, a political representative of the Russian Legion, a separate group of Russians fighting on the Ukrainian side under the Ukrainian command, said that the Russian Volunteer Corps has contacts with the Ukrainian military but operates in a “gray area.”
“But this definitely was not the operation that was initiated or orchestrated somehow by the Ukrainian military,” he said.
Kapustin is a former mixed martial arts fighter and a far-right radical who calls himself Denis “WhiteRex” Nikitin and built a white nationalist mixed martial arts empire spanning from Britain to Eastern Europe. The Anti-Defamation League describes him as a “neo-Nazi” who lived in Germany for many years.
Kapustin described himself as a “Russian nationalist all my life” during a YouTube interview in November with London-based Russian journalist Oleg Kashin. Kapustin said that the Volunteer Corps consists of ethnic Russians fighting on Ukraine’s side, adding that Russian nationalism “has turned completely the wrong way.”
In April, Kapustin posted a video urging white nationalists from the United States, Britain, Germany and other countries to fight Putin because Russia had turned into a police state. He spoke negatively about Zelensky because he is Jewish and promotes “the worst of liberal values,” but he said Putin is worse.
The group’s ideology focuses on preserving Russians “as an ethnic group” and argues that “Putin and his henchmen are destroying Russians as an ethnic group, replacing them with an artificial concept of a ‘political nation.’”
Andrey Yusov, a spokesman for the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, said the group is independent and that “they are citizens of the Russian Federation, who have the right to defend, liberate their territory from a tyrant and dictator.”
The Russian Volunteer Corps announced its creation in August, with a statement on its newly created Telegram channel: “We Russian volunteers living in Ukraine have decided to take up arms and create a military formation — the Russian Volunteer Corps — so that together with our Ukrainian comrades-in-arms, we can defend their homeland, which shelters us, and then continue the fight against Putin’s criminal regime and its henchmen.”
Referring to the Thursday report of an attack, Ivan Zhdanov, director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation founded by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, tweeted that the Bryansk attack “looks very much like a planned provocation.”
Leonid Volkov, another member of Navalny’s team, which operates in exile, expressed doubts about the incident “because it is not clear what happened, there is not a single photo about it, but only conflicting reports from regional officials and anonymous telegram channels.”
Also on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that the U.S. military did not provide resources to assist in recent attacks outside of Ukraine.
“I can say definitively that the notion of us providing intelligence or information to the Ukrainians to target locations inside Russia is nonsense,” Ryder said when asked about potential use of U.S.-provided drones in bordering Belarus. “We are regularly consulting with the Ukrainians on the appropriate use of the equipment that we provide to them. And all indications are that they continue to stay very focused on defending their homeland and fighting within Ukraine.”
With Putin indicating the war could drag on, and relations between Washington and Moscow frosty, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke briefly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 nations in New Delhi on Thursday. The two men had not spoken face to face since before Russia’s invasion.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the meeting took place at Blinken’s request, and she played down its importance, adding that Lavrov spoke to Blinken “on the go.”
“There were no negotiations, meetings and so on,” Zakharova said.
David L. Stern in Kyiv and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Ukraine’s air defenses shot down more than 30 missiles and drones in a new round of Russian air attacks overnight, the army’s commander said. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. “won’t let” Putin impose his will on other nations.
The fight: Russia took control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers died in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, in late May. But holding the city will be difficult. The Wagner Group, responsible for the fight and victory in Bakhmut, is allegedly leaving and being replaced by the Russian army.
The upcoming counteroffensive: After a rainy few months left the ground muddy, sticky and unsuitable for heavy vehicles in southern Ukraine, temperatures are rising — and with them, the expectations of a long-awaited counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces.
The frontline: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.
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