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Anti-Putin militias mount cross-border incursion in western Russia

A troop carrier idles near a checkpoint close to the Russian-Ukrainian border in Belgorod, Russia, last year. (Mary Ilyushina for The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Russian officials said Tuesday that a counterterrorism operation has expelled saboteurs from the Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, after militias made up of Russians fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war mounted an attack on a border post and targeted a building of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

The governor of Belgorod, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said Tuesday that one woman died while being evacuated during the attack and eight others were injured.

One of the militia groups, the Legion of Free Russia, insisted on Tuesday evening that its fighters had not been expelled and were still in control of some Russian territory. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday afternoon that security forces killed 70 fighters and destroyed four infantry vehicles and five pickup trucks.

Neither the Legion of Free Russia’s claim nor the Defense Ministry’s statement could be independently verified, and many details about the incident were unclear, although a video verified by The Washington Post showed two heavily damaged U.S.-made Humvees on the Russian side of a border station. It is unclear if the militias used them or if Ukrainian forces provided them to the group. The United States has sent more than 2,000 Humvees to Ukraine. A Pentagon spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that the cross-border attack was an attempt by Ukraine to distract attention from Russia’s seizure of Bakhmut, the long-embattled city in eastern Ukraine that Russia claimed this week to have finally captured.

After previous incidents, including drone strikes and an armed incursion in the western Bryansk region, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered officials to tighten security in regions adjacent to Ukraine, but the new attack shows that Russia is still unable to protect the border zone. Prior security failures drew harsh criticism from Russian hard-liners.

The Legion of Free Russia and a second militia called the Russian Volunteer Corps are composed of ethnic Russian fighters, including Russian citizens, who oppose Putin and say they are working to “liberate” their homeland. Some members of the groups are known to be Russian neo-Nazis or to harbor other extremist views.

The leader of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Denis Kapustin, for example, is a former mixed martial arts fighter with ties to white-nationalist groups throughout Europe.

Before-and-after images of the destroyed Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

The groups, which nominally operate under Ukraine’s military intelligence wing, published dark, grainy videos purportedly filmed during the nighttime raid in the early hours of Monday, with fighters standing next to road signs in the Belgorod region. The Post could not immediately verify the authenticity of the videos.

In one, a voice can be heard saying, “The fighters of the RDK have once again crossed the border,” using the Russian initials of the Russian Volunteer Corps. “Russia will soon be free.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, denied any direct involvement by Kyiv and said the armed groups were acting on their own. On Twitter, Podolyak said Ukraine is watching the events “with interest and studying the situation” — a common response by the government to attacks on Russian territory.

Videos published on Russian social media claimed to show explosions in the region on Monday, including the attack at a Russian border post.

Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, who is a founder of the Free Russia Legion, said the main thrust of the attack was through the Kozinka checkpoint into the Grayvoron district of Belgorod. Ponomarev said the groups had also carried out attacks into Russia’s Bryansk region, near Ukraine’s border with Belarus and at another point further south.

“Seven villages are now under control … which stretch across around 40 kilometers [25 miles] of Russian territory,” Ponomarev said in a voice message responding to questions from The Post. Ponomarev said that a drone attack was carried out on the FSB and Interior Ministry buildings in the city of Belgorod, the regional capital.

Ponomarev said that the two groups comprised five battalions and were part of the International Legion, a formation of foreign fighters under the command of Ukraine’s military intelligence. But Ponomarev insisted that the cross-border attack was planned and conducted by the Russians alone and that no Ukrainian soldiers were involved. His assertions about the seven villages and other details of the attacks could not be independently confirmed.

The Post verified some of the footage from the Belgorod region, including three videos of what appears to be the saboteur group at Russia’s Kozinka border crossing. Altogether, the videos — shot at different times and in different locations — confirmed reports that an attack had taken place and caused damage in the border area.

One of the videos shows a soldier wearing fatigues with the yellow tape markings of the Ukrainian military, next to a damaged building at the Kozinka checkpoint. Another features armored vehicles with Ukrainian military markings and a third, comprising aerial footage, captures plumes of smoke rising from along the highway from Kozinka.

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Gladkov, the Belgorod governor, said early Tuesday that Russian forces were “cleansing” the border area of the pro-Ukrainian saboteurs. He asked evacuated residents of Grayvoron to hold off on returning to their homes until it was safer.

“There is information that there are two wounded civilians in the settlements which the enemy has entered,” Gladkov wrote on the Telegram messaging platform, apparently confirming that the pro-Ukrainian groups were still active in Belgorod. “So far, security forces have not been able to reach them.”

While Russian and Ukrainian officials confirmed that ethnic Russian armed groups crossed the border from Ukraine and carried out some kind of strikes, the full scope of the attacks and details of the incidents were not clear.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said it was “highly likely” that the attacks took place, adding that Russia would use the incidents to support the Kremlin’s narrative that it is a victim in the war.

The U.S. State Department reiterated that it has made clear to Ukraine that military aid from the United States must not be used in attacks outside Ukraine’s borders but that it is up to Ukraine to decide how to conduct military operations.

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the incidents in Belgorod. On Monday, Yusov told Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne that Russian groups carried out the attack to create a buffer zone to shield Ukrainian civilians from Russian attacks in the border region — a frequent occurrence in Ukrainian areas along the country’s northeastern border.

Peskov told reporters Tuesday that the Belgorod incident is concerning, but he said Putin is not planning to hold a security council meeting about it. “The special military operation is continuing to prevent this from happening in the future,” Peskov said, using Russia’s official euphemism for the war in Ukraine. He added that Russia’s Investigative Committee, a federal law enforcement agency, has opened a criminal case into the Belgorod matter.

Later Tuesday, a Moscow court extended the pretrial detention period for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich by three months in response to a request by the FSB. The reporter has denied the charges against him, as have his employer and the U.S. government. The government has lobbied for Gershkovich’s release; that demand was reiterated in a briefing Tuesday by White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

“We are deeply concerned that Russia has extended the pretrial detention of Evan Gershkovich by an additional three months today,” Jean-Pierre said. “We have been very clear that the claims against him are baseless. Russia should release Evan and Paul Whelan immediately and we’ll continue to be very clear on that point.”

Natalia Abbakumova and Mary Ilyushina, in Riga, Latvia, Alex Horton in Washington and Samuel Oakford in New York contributed to this report.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

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Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.