KYIV, Ukraine – Russia said on Monday, May 22, it was battling a cross-border incursion by saboteurs who burst through the frontier from Ukraine, in what appeared to be one of the biggest attacks of its kind since the war began last year.
A senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv had nothing to do with the incursion in Russia’s Belgorod region, putting it down to Russia’s “violent resistance movement” gradually emerging from underground.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of Belgorod bordering northeastern Ukraine, said the Russian army, border guards, presidential guards and FSB security service were taking measures to repel the raid.
At least three people had been wounded and three houses and a local administrative building were damaged, he said.
The Telegram channel Baza, linked to Russia’s security services, published footage apparently showing a Ukrainian armoured vehicle advancing on the border checkpoint. Though there have been other reports of cross-border raids, an infiltration using armored vehicles would appear to be unprecedented since Russia invaded Ukraine 15 months ago.
Baza said there were indications of fighting in three settlements on the main road leading from northeastern Ukraine into Russia.
A group calling itself the Liberty of Russia Legion, which claims to be made up of Russians cooperating with Ukrainian forces, said on Twitter it had “completely liberated” the border town of Kozinka and reached district center Graivoron.
“Moving on. Russia will be free!” the group wrote.
Earlier on Monday, it released a video showing five heavily armed fighters. “We are Russians, like you. We are people like you,” one said, facing the camera. “It is time to put an end to the dictatorship of the Kremlin.”
Ukraine’s military intelligence service attributed the operation to “opposition-minded Russian citizens,” Ukrainian media outlet Hromadske said.
In a written statement to Reuters, senior Zelenskiy aide Mykhailo Podolyak echoed Ukrainian military intelligence.
“The Russian liberation movement can become something that will contribute to the correct end of the war in Ukraine and significantly speed up the beginning of transformational events in the Russian political elite,” he said.
“The violent Russian resistance movement, whose architects are exclusively citizens of Russia itself, is gradually coming out of the underground. They are independent in their decisions, have certain experience, and are free from fear.”
Reuters could not verify the situation in the border towns.
Ukraine sees advances around Bakhmut
The reported incursion comes two days after Russia said it had captured the final few blocks of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Moscow’s first substantial claim of victory since last summer after the bloodiest land battle in Europe since World War Two.
But even as the Russians have pushed forward inside Bakhmut, their forces on the city’s northern and southern outskirts were retreating last week at the war’s fastest pace for six months, giving both sides reasons to claim momentum.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut now opens the way to further advances in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine says its advance on the Russian forces’ flanks is more meaningful than its withdrawal inside Bakhmut itself, and Russia will have to weaken its lines elsewhere to send reinforcements to hold the shattered city.
“Through our movement on the flanks – to the north and south – we manage to destroy the enemy,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Monday in televised comments.
“By moving along the flanks and occupying certain heights there, our armed forces have made it very difficult for the enemy to stay in the city itself.”
Ukrainian forces were still advancing, particularly south of Bakhmut, Maliar said, though she said fighting on the northern flank had become less intense for now. Reuters could not independently verify the situation in either location.
Maliar also said Ukraine still held a foothold inside the city, although independent monitors say any remaining Ukrainian presence there is unlikely to be substantial.
“Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritize counterattacks on Bakhmut’s outskirts,” the Institute for the Study of War think tank said on Monday.
Give the generals guns
The battle for Bakhmut has exposed a rift between Russia’s regular armed forces and Wagner, a private army whose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has been issuing daily audio and video messages mocking the generals.
In his latest message on Monday, he repeated a vow to pull his troops out of Bakhmut, beginning in three days, and hand it over to regular troops.
“If the Defense Ministry’s own forces aren’t enough, then we have thousands of generals – we just need to put together a battalion of generals, give them all guns, and it’ll all be fine,” he said.
The Ukrainians say they have pushed the front back in places north and south of Bakhmut by more than a mile since last week, the fastest the front has moved since they recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November.
Moscow’s defense ministry has acknowledged that some Russian troops fell back outside Bakhmut last week, but has denied Prigozhin’s repeated assertion that the flanks were crumbling.
The warring sides hold opposing views of the importance of Bakhmut, once a small mining city of 70,000 people, now an uninhabited ruin lain to waste by eight months of street-to-street combat.
Moscow portrays Bakhmut as a step towards its aim of securing control over the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. Kyiv sees the city as a “mousetrap” for Russian troops, important mainly because of the chance to destroy attacking forces there.
With the Ukrainian counteroffensive looming, Russia has launched missile and drone strikes across Ukraine this month at the fastest pace since the war began. In the latest, some 15 blasts were heard overnight in the southern Ukrainian city of Dnipro.
Ukraine also said Russian shelling had briefly knocked out power lines to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, in Russian-held territory near the front. – Rappler.com
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