For the Russian military, the turbulence of the past few days is unpleasant, but not unusual. For the Russian nation, something altogether new appears to be underway.
On Monday, Russian anti-Kremlin fighters claimed to have attacked two villages inside Russia’s Belgorod region, after crossing from Ukraine. By Tuesday, the Russian regional governor said the cross-border incursion had been crushed. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu threatened to respond to similar attacks “promptly and with extreme harshness.”
Meanwhile, a media report late Wednesday said that U.S. intelligence sources believe Ukrainian secret services have orchestrated a series a brazen attacks deep inside Russia, including the May 3 drone strike on the Kremlin itself.
Taken together, these incidents could be a sign of things to come – as Ukraine appears to see a new opening to take advantage of Russian vulnerability inside its own borders in a bold form of psychological warfare.
In more immediate terms, the Belgorod attacks come as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky returns home from a diplomatic world tour, armed with promises from allies for more powerful weaponry, including long-range cruise missiles and, eventually, fighter jets.
At the same time, Ukrainian forces also finally appeared to cede full control of Bakhmut — a potentially Pyrrhic victory for Russian forces, who are reported to have lost as many as 100,000 soldiers and tied up vital resources for months in the battle for the city.
But attention this week has been focused most of all on the attacks in Belgorod. Ukraine has denied any connection to the two Russian partisan militia behind the operation: the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC). Denis Nikitin, a Russian far-right figure, described himself as the RVC commander when he met reporters on Wednesday in Ukraine’s northern Sumy region, which borders Russia. Nikitin said that inside Ukraine, the RVC’s actions are planned with the knowledge and assistance of the Ukrainian military, but anything outside of the country’s borders “is our decision.”
It’s leaving Russian commanders guessing about where and when a counteroffensive may begin.
The website of the Freedom of Russia Legion, meanwhile, says it was formed last spring “out of Russians’ desire to fight against Putin’s armed gang,” and is “officially recognized” by the Ukrainian armed forces. “We are fighting in full cooperation with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and under the leadership of the Ukrainian command,” the website says.
Yet more than territory and casualties, the goal of these attacks may be to sow confusion and doubt, by sending the message that Ukrainians and allies can strike behind Russian lines, and leaving Russian commanders guessing about where and when a counteroffensive may begin – or if it already has.
Striking the seat of power
Earlier in May, suicide drones targeted the roof of the Kremlin, an attack that US officials are now claiming may have been directed by Ukraine after some had speculated that it was a staged Russian “false flag” operation to justify brutal reprisals.
Ukrainian President Zelensky has previously denied that Ukraine was targeting Putin or Moscow directly. “We are fighting on our territory; we are defending our villages and cities,” he said in May. But intercepts gathered by U.S. intelligence captured members of Ukraine’s military and intelligence bureaucracy speculating that Ukrainian special operations forces were responsible for the Moscow attack.
According to those intelligence reports, Zelensky, his entourage discussed the general parameters of a covert campaign with Ukrainian intelligence – but the president reportedly left the choice of targets and methods up to the spy service.
If true, it would be the latest in a series of attacks that may be tied to Ukrainian covert forces. The New York Timesreports that Ukrainians are likely also to be responsible for orchestrating the murder of Russian propagandists Darya Dugina and Vladlen Tatarsky, as well as a series of attacks on Russian settlements in the border areas, including the latest in the Belgorod region.
Taken together, it paints a picture that suddenly makes Russians inside their own territory — and homes — feel vulnerable in a way that only soldiers at the front and their families have experienced until now.
May 25, 2023: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends an expanded meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia.
Another important revelation of Ukrainian intentions inside Russia came recently from Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate. In a May 19 interview with the Italian publication La Repubblica, he said Ukrainian spies are actively trying to kill Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A similar fate awaits mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, he says.
“Our priority is to eliminate the unit commander who orders his men to attack,” Skibitsky told La Repubblica. Putin is the top target “because he coordinates and decides what happens.”
“But in the end, everyone will have to answer for their actions. Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu planned the attack, and now they cannot turn back.”
Pressure on the Kremlin
These seemingly disconnected events may be part of a pattern of distractions or probing attacks to assess enemy vulnerability and leave Russian commanders guessing ahead of a counteroffensive.
War, for many Russians, is being driven ever closer to home.
Attacks on Russian territory are also increasing pressure on the Kremlin. One of Moscow’s justifications for the invasion was national security – but before the war, life was calm and peaceful in places like Belgorod and other regions near the Ukrainian border — not to mention inside Moscow itself.
The events of the last month have revealed that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has had the opposite effect of what he had promised. War, for many Russians, is now coming home.
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