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KYIV — Russia may have taken the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut Sunday, but forces aligned with Ukraine apparently took a tiny part of Russia on Monday — or so video and photograph footage suggested as of just after noon local time. Ukrainian armored vehicles, including at least one tank, were seen attacking a border post, in the town of Kozinka, in the Belgorod region of southern Russia.
Drone footage, taken from the Ukrainian side of the border, showed a lone tank advancing toward the Russian border checkpoint in Kozinka, the main building of which had several large holes blasted in its exterior walls. A group of three light armored vehicles was also spotted in the same location, with Ukrainian marks — white crosses — clearly painted on their hulls. Footage circulating on social media and purportedly shot inside the checkpoint building showed Russian passports scattered on the floor, a portrait of Vladimir Putin hanging on the wall and a dead border guard.
What seemed to be a relatively simple Ukrainian cross-border raid — not the first of its kind in 15 months of war — soon revealed itself to be a far more ambitious and dug-in incursion into Russian territory. From Kozinka, the counter-invaders advanced toward the larger Russian town of Grayvoron. As of Monday morning, the Ukrainian-aligned forces had advanced 3.5 miles over the border into Russia. Two groups claimed responsibility: the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, which is headed by a notorious far-right Russian nationalist.
As they progressed, the pro-Ukraine Russians handed out leaflets telling Russian soldiers how to surrender and promising their good treatment if the soldiers did. “The best deсision for you and your family is to surrender to the Armed Forces of Ukraine!” the leaflets read. “The prisoners are fed according to the norm of our soldiers, and if you have desire you will be arranged for paid work.”
Ukraine denies involvement
Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine's military intelligence directorate, claimed that the operation in the Belgorod region was carried out exclusively by Russian citizens, with the aim to “create a certain security zone to protect the Ukrainian civilian population.” Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, also claimed that Kyiv had no direct involvement in the events in Belgorod, which they were watching “with interest.”
“As you know, tanks are sold at any Russian military store and underground guerrilla groups are composed of Russian citizens,” Podoliak said.
Ukraine’s denial mirrored and mocked the Kremlin’s own past denials of its incursions into Ukraine, including the 2014 seizure and illegal annexation of Crimea.
Another senior Ukrainian military intelligence official, in what can be described as a smirking disavowal of any hand in the matter, told Yahoo News: “These are not regular units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, definitely not our style of warfare. There are many analogies in history where the people themselves decide when to take up arms and defend their rights and freedoms. Finland in 1939, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968. Similarly Ukraine in 2014, in the territory of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. As a rule, a referendum with 82% to 84% support from the local population follows. In any case, ‘We are not there.’”
“Russian volunteers have proven that the Russian government is completely defenseless against organized resistance by Russians,” the official told Yahoo News. “Ukraine welcomes the desire of Russians to change the political system in their own country.”
The Russian military scrambled to get reinforcements to the border as the advance of the pro-Ukrainian forces continued. Mi-8 transport helicopters were seen over Kozinka and Rakitnoye, dropping flares and flying low in an attempt to avoid portable surface-to-air missiles. Local Russian civilians fled, forming long lines of traffic as they made their exit from the area.
The Kremlin’s public reaction was first an attempt to downplay the attack. Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, described the action as the work of a “Ukrainian sabotage group” but said Russia had “sufficient forces” in Belgorod to deal with them.
“A sabotage and reconnaissance group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine entered the territory of the Grayvoron district,” Vyacheslav Gladkov, the Russian governor of the region, said in a statement. “The armed forces of the Russian Federation, together with the border service, the Russian Guard and the FSB,” he added, referring to the successor agency of the Soviet KGB, “are taking the necessary measures to eliminate the enemy.” Russian military bloggers also claimed that the deputy head of the Grayvoron city administration was wounded “during the shelling of the administration building,” a claim Yahoo News cannot independently verify.
Though the prospects for the invaders to hang on to any territorial gains is dim, the incursion has already embarrassed the Kremlin a day after its declaration of victory in Bakhmut, a blasted-out city in Donetsk, which Russian forces — particularly the Wagner mercenary corps — have been trying to sack for nine months. The Belgorod raid will no doubt force the Russian military to redeploy elements from a badly strained army to reinforce the border region.