What is happening in Belgorod, the target of an anti-Putin commando operation?

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the war has occasionally interfered in the territory of Russia. If they have sometimes been spectacular, like the explosion of two drones in the Kremlin, in the very heart of the capital, they have never been of such magnitude. On Monday, fighters launched an armed incursion into Russian territory in the “special operation conduct area in the Belgorod region”, in the words of the official Russian agency TASS. Propelling this border region of Ukraine, in this war which, in Russia, still does not say its name.

Tanks and shells brutally burst into the villages of Zamostie, Glotovo and Graivoron. Several localities have been evacuated and videos circulating on social networks show lines of vehicles fleeing the area. After having silenced this armed incursion, the Kremlin ended up officially expressing its “deep concern” on Tuesday. However, the Russian authorities then claimed to have “crushed” the armed group thanks to “aircraft and artillery strikes and the action of the border defense units of the Western Military District”, without this information is not confirmed at this stage.

Two armed groups on the offensive

“There are two separate Russian groups, independent of the Ukrainian military, claiming involvement in this incursion. The Russian Freedom Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), both are fighting on the side of Ukraine in this war,” explains Carole Grimaud, an expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory. The “Freedom of Russia” Legion, formed in March 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, engaged against Moscow. According to the company commander, quoted in May 2022 by UNIAN, the Ukrainian news agencythese volunteers joined forces with kyiv to “protect Ukrainians from real fascists”.

“Since the start of the war, we have seen a lot of their white-blue-white flags which symbolize for them the future flag of Russia, rid of Vladimir Putin”, underlines the expert from Russia. The second formation involved in this incursion is murkier. “Denis Nikkitin (real name Kapustin) would be at the head of the battalion of Russian volunteers. He is a far-right activist who lived in Germany and got into trouble with the law,” explains Carole Grimaud. The two groups are independent of the Ukrainian government, which claims to have no responsibility in this attack, perpetrated on Russian territory. They also have the particularity of being made up of Russians.

A slap in the face for Moscow

“These are Russians attacking Russia itself. For the Russians, it is something very strong, close to the start of a civil war”, analyzes Carole Grimaud. It is above all a slap in the face for Moscow. The attacks on its soil continue to shell over the months. The Kremlin has also admitted that “more efforts” were necessary to combat these incursions, while the permeability of its borders is increasingly pointed out. For the first time since February 24, 2022, Russia has been forced to establish an “anti-terrorist” regime on its territory. “Other regions, even Crimea and annexed areas, are under martial law. This regime is at a higher level, it allows the control of citizens, incursions into their homes or the seizure of private vehicles, ”lists Carole Grimaud, specifying that this regime had been established in Chechnya.

The Russian president has not yet spoken on the subject. “On the one hand, the official discourse continues in a linear fashion: ‘the operation continues according to Vladimir Putin’s plans’. On the other, the population is forced to evacuate and the Russians are attacked on their own soil”, image the expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory. While Moscow increasingly stifles the voice of opponents, the men who participate in this incursion hope to force the emergence of another discourse. “They are asking the Russian population to wake up and join their fight to oust the power in place. The “Freedom of Russia” legion publishes photographs of their blue-white-blue flag hanging from balloons flying over Moscow,” says Carole Grimaud. In this objective of turning Russian public opinion and recruiting new fighters, these groups have also made “a list of cities in which acts of resistance have taken place”.

From buffer zone to diversion

In its claim, the “Freedom for Russia” legion assures that its objective is to “create a demilitarized zone on the border” between Russia and Ukraine in order to protect the latter from assaults and bombardments from Moscow. “The idea of ​​a demilitarized zone is circulating more and more. The American staff would consider creating a buffer and demilitarized zone in order to put an end to the fighting, like the Korean war where the two parties never signed a peace treaty, ”explains Carole Grimaud. With an incursion of only ten kilometers into Russian territory, the current operation is far from the ambition that Washington would have.

There could be a desire to attract Russian reserves to this region in order to launch the counter-offensive more easily”

Finally, there is the possibility that the combatants serve as a diversion. Ukraine has been preparing a long-awaited counter-offensive for several weeks. The implementation of this attack on the very territory of Russia could disturb the Russian army, even disorganize it. “There could be a desire to attract Russian reserves to this region in order to launch the counter-offensive more easily. But to disengage Russian troops from the front and relocate them to the Belgorod region would require a more powerful lever, more attack force,” analyzes the expert at the Geneva Geostrategic Observatory. However, rumors are circulating that the Kremlin has given the order to send certain units to the region.

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