Anti-Putin paramilitaries claim incursion into Russia from Ukraine

Ukraine’s military intelligence says anti-Putin Russian volunteer militias are not acting under orders from Kyiv.

Members of the pro-Ukrainian Russian ethnic Siberian Battalion practice at a military training close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023
Members of the pro-Ukrainian Russian ethnic Siberian Battalion practice at a military training session [File: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo]
Correction13 Mar 2024
This story was edited to show that it was Russia that invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Pro-Ukrainian militias have claimed multiple attacks on Russian border regions as Russia insisted it beat back the raids, staged three days before it holds a presidential election.

Ukraine-based armed groups, made up of pro-Kyiv Russian volunteer fighters who oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Tuesday they had entered the Kursk and Belgorod regions.

The cross-border raids, which Russia’s defence ministry said were thwarted, took place as Kyiv launched dozens of drones and rockets in Russia in its largest attack since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The Ukrainian attack set two oil refineries in Russia ablaze.

Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian Duma, now acting as political head of the Freedom of Russia Legion, said on Telegram that the raids had been carried out by his group in a “joint operation” with the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Siberian Battalion.

The Legion claimed it was still clashing with Russian forces as of 1:15pm local time (10:15 GMT). It published a video from a drone purportedly showing a vehicle being blown up and fighters on the streets of the village of Tyotkino, on the border between Russia and Ukraine.

However, Russia’s Ministry of Defence said its forces had repelled the last attack at 8:25am (05:25 GMT), saying troops had fought off multiple attacks by “Ukrainian terrorist groups” that had attempted to invade from three directions after alleged “intensive shelling” of civilian sites.

“All the Ukrainian attacks were repelled. The enemy was hit by aircraft, rockets and artillery,” it said.

Kursk Governor Roman Starovoyt said there had also been a shootout in his region, but a larger incursion had been thwarted. In the wake of the attacks, schools in the city of Kursk were switching to online classes, according to the TASS news agency.

Another pro-Kyiv paramilitary group, the Russian Volunteer Corps, posted night-vision video on Tuesday purporting to show its troops engaged in a firefight.

Ukraine-based militias have claimed to be behind previous incursions into Russian territory. Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence, said that the Russian volunteer groups were not acting under orders from Kyiv.

But he added that the attacks showed “the Kremlin is once again not in control of the situation in Russia”.

A spokesperson for the political wing of the Freedom of Russia Legion told the AFP news agency on Tuesday that the attack was timed to coincide with Russia’s March 15-17 presidential elections.

“This is not an election at all. It is the next stage of a usurpation of power, the formation of Putin’s dictatorship under the guise of elections,” spokesman Alexei Baranovsky said.

Major oil refinery hit

The cross-border attack came as Kyiv launched one of its most significant drone strikes on Russia of the two-year war.

Moscow said it downed 25 Ukrainian drones over regions including Moscow, Leningrad, Belgorod, Kursk, Bryansk, Tula and Oryol. Waves of drone attacks continued through the day, the defence ministry said.

Russian officials reported attacks on energy facilities, including a fire at Lukoil’s NORSI refinery and a drone destroyed on the outskirts of the town of Kirishi, home to Russia’s second-largest oil refinery.

Gleb Nikitin, governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, posted a picture of a fire truck beside the NORSI refinery and said emergency services were working to put out a blaze there.

“A fuel and energy complex facility was attacked by unmanned aerial vehicles,” Nikitin said on Telegram.

Industry sources told the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity that the main crude distillation unit (AVT-6) at NORSI was damaged in the attack, which means that at least half of the refinery’s production is halted. Lukoil declined to comment.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies