Belgorod region hit by drone strikes after attack carried out by pro-Ukraine Russian Volunteer Corps
Russian authorities have ordered residents of nine villages in the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine to evacuate their homes after anti-Putin rebel groups began capturing territory on Russian soil.
The Kremlin’s order comes hours after a pair of explosions rang out in the city of Belgorod overnight amid drone attacks on the FSB security service building and Interior Ministry offices.
Regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov confirmed the aerial bombing raid had caused fires at government buildings and urged citizens to take shelter amid the rebel attacks.
Ukrainian military intelligence said two armed Russian opposition groups, the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, were behind the biggest armed incursion into Russian territory since Putin‘s February 24, 2022 invasion of his neighbour – recognised as a ‘serious cause for concern’ by the Kremlin.
The attack was seemingly unexpected, with the rebels able to gain control of several Russian towns in a matter of hours.
An anti-Kremlin volunteer fighter is pictured alongside a captured Russian armoured personnel carrier
Fire engines and emergency services vehicles responded to fires at government buildings in Belgorod following a drone attack (left), while Russian rebels commandeered FSB armoured vehicles (right)
A line of armoured vehicles piloted by Russian rebel forces fighting on behalf of Ukraine
Fire engines, ambulances and police cars are seen outside government offices in Belgorod following a drone attack
The US-based think-tank the Institute for the Study of War, which is tracking the conflict, said: ‘A detachment [of Russian rebels] consisting of two tanks, an armoured personnel carrier, and nine other armoured vehicles crossed the international border and captured Kozinka, a settlement in the Graivoron region of Belgorod Oblast.
‘Several Russian sources claimed that the grouping then captured the settlements of Glotovo and Gora Podol (3km and 5km from the border, respectively).
‘While the majority of [Russian military commentators] responded with relatively varied concern, anxiety, and anger, the information space did not coalesce around one coherent response, which indicates first and foremost that the attack took Russian commentators by surprise.’
The Freedom of Russia Legion is a Ukraine-based Russian militia led by Russian opposition figure Ilya Ponomarev that says it is working inside Russia for Putin’s overthrow.
It said on Twitter it had ‘completely liberated’ the border town of Kozinka and forward units had reached the district centre of Graivoron, further east.
‘Moving on. Russia will be free!’ it wrote.
Yesterday the group shared a video on social media in which a handful of soldiers vowed to liberate their homeland from Putin’s autocratic rule, while other clips showed anti-Putin rebels posing with flags in front of Russian road signs, calling for an end to the ‘Kremlin’s dictatorship’.
Another video purported to show a ‘trophy armoured personnel carrier 82A’ from Putin’s FSB which had been seized by the insurgents.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said that Kyiv was not involved, but confirmed the government was ‘watching the events in the Belgorod region’, before adding: ‘The Russian liberation movement can become something that will contribute to the correct end of the war in Ukraine.’
Andrii Yusov – a representative of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine – claimed Russian authorities had ordered an immediate evacuation of the Belgorod-22 ammunition storage facility.
He purported the facility was home to tactical nuclear weapons, though this was not verified.
The armed incursion into Belgorod by the anti-Putin Russian volunteer units triggered panic and a mass exodus of residents.
Gladkov late last night told those who had fled not to return to their homes until further notice because of safety fears.
‘In the district of Graivoron, the Defence Ministry and security forces continue to clear the area,’ he said.
‘But I now appeal to the residents of the Graivoron district, who, thank you very much, have temporarily left their homes.
‘Do not return for the time being. We will let you know right away [when it is safe].’
Gladkov yesterday said at least eight people had been wounded, and one 82-year-old woman died during evacuations.
He added that he had imposed a ‘counter-terrorism regime’, granting authorities greater powers to clamp down on people’s movement and communications.
This handout photograph taken and released by Ukrainian Presidential press-service on May 23, 2023 shows President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky (C) posing for a photograph with two servicemen he decorated during his visit to the forward positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Vugledar-Maryinka defense zone
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) decorating a serviceman during his visit to the forward positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine
In a video released online (pictured), fighters from the Russian Volunteer Corps said they were in Russia in the early hours of Monday morning
Pictured: A still image from a video purportedly showing smoke rising over Russia’s Belgorod region on Sunday amid reports of an incursion by anti-Kremlin Russian fighters
In a statement on Telegram, Governor Gladkov (pictured) said the Russian army and security forces were taking measures to repel the incursion
Pro-Russian sources made a series of claims in light of the insurgency in Belgorod.
The Rybar Telegram channel, close to the Russian defence ministry, claimed today that the incursion was choreographed by Britain’s SAS.
‘British specialists are in charge of this,’ it wrote.
‘We wrote back in May 2022 that… sorties and sabotage operations in the border zone with Russia were assigned to the officers of the British Special Air Service (SAS).
‘Actually, the ”Russian Volunteer Corps” and ‘Freedom of Russia Legion” are created by British advisers, which are designed, first of all, to bring division and confusion on the territory of the Russian Federation.’
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev also blamed Ukraine and the West for the attacks.
‘Responsibility lies with the Kyiv regime,’ he said.
‘And eventually its sponsors – Washington, countries of the European Union, and with other countries that joined them like Great Britain.’
He said: ‘As for these scum – I can’t find another name for them – the question is what to do with them.
‘They have to be destroyed like rats, and not even taken captive.’
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group deployed on Ukrainian frontlines, claimed the rebel incursion into Belgorod was another sign of the incompetence of the Russian defence ministry.
Prigozhin has hammered defence minister Sergei Shoigu and army chief Valery Gerasimov in recent weeks, accusing them of starving his mercenaries of ammunition and allowing regular Russian army troops to retreat, leaving his men exposed.
‘There is a lack of management… Instead of being engaged in ensuring the security of the state, they are playing the fool. There is no governance, no desire, and no individuals who are ready to defend their country,’ he said in a statement.
Russian authorities on Tuesday afternoon said its armed forces had beaten back the insurgency.
‘In the course of the counter-terrorist operation, the nationalist formations were blocked and destroyed by air strikes and artillery fire,’ the Russian defence ministry said.
‘The remaining (fighters) were driven back to the territory of Ukraine, where they continued to be hit by fire until they were completely eliminated,’ the ministry said in a statement.
The statement said Russian forces killed more than 70 Ukrainian fighters and destroyed four armoured vehicles, though this is yet to be confirmed.
Elsewhere in Russia, a military plant in the Bryansk region which borders Belarus suffered several explosions in a suspected Ukrainian strike.
Smoke was seen pouring from the facility in Dyatkovo belonging to a company called LLC NPP Alexander – a contractor of Vladimir Putin’s defence ministry according to reports.
It is unclear if the facility was hit by a drone attack, a missile or sabotage.