Fresh from the attack on Russian soil, looters taunt the Kremlin
After leading a military incursion into Russian territory, commanders of anti-Kremlin armed groups on Wednesday mocked the Russian military for its slow response and threatened Moscow with more raids to come.
Russia, they told reporters at a news conference in a clearing in northern Ukraine near the border, should now understand that any section of the long border can become a new place Moscow will be forced to defend.
Military analysts suggested that the cross-border attack in the Belgorod region on Monday and Tuesday had a dual purpose, military and political.
It appeared to be aimed at forcing Russia to divert much-needed troops from the front in eastern and southern Ukraine, even as Ukraine prepares a counteroffensive. And he threatened to embarrass the government of President Vladimir V. Putin by showing Russia’s vulnerability.
The raid prompted a warning from the leader of Russia’s largest mercenary force, who said his country would face further military setbacks unless its ruling elite took drastic – and most likely unpopular – steps to win the war. war. The Kremlin, said Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, must order a new wave of military mobilization, declare martial law and force “everyone possible” to produce munitions.
“We must stop building new roads and infrastructure and only work for war, to live a few years like North Korea,” Prigozhin said.
Otherwise, he said, the consequences could prove disastrous for a Russian elite he described as deeply alienated from citizens. “Society always demands justice,” he said, “and if there is no justice, then revolutionary feelings arise.”
Some pro-war Russian voices have openly expressed concern that the Belgorod attacks will create new battlefield challenges for Russia, whose only significant military victory in the past nine months came in recent days, when she claimed control of the ruins of the city of Bakhmut after a long and costly battle.
Igor Girkin, military blogger and former Russian paramilitary commander in Ukraine, warned of “the inevitable creation of a continuous front along this border, which will have to be filled from somewhere with combined arms units and armed forces formations. Russians, is on the agenda.”
This can only help the Ukrainian army, said Mr. Girkin, who poses as Igor Strelkov.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the attackers, who are members of two groups calling themselves the Free Russian Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, had been pushed back across the border into Ukraine. . But the attacks in Belgorod continued overnight, with a “large number” of drone strikes and damage to a gas pipeline that caused a small fire, regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said Wednesday morning.
“The night was not entirely calm,” Gladkov wrote on Telegram, saying houses, cars and office buildings in the city of Belgorod and other settlements were damaged.
It was unclear how the aftermath of the raid might unfold in Russia.
Russian political analysts said the attack could spark dissatisfaction with the military’s incompetence among pro-war groups, but it could also present Mr Putin with an opportunity to try to rally people around the flag. Already, the Kremlin has said the looters abandoned American-made military vehicles inside Russia, and Moscow may use the far-right stories of some of the looters to bolster its largely false claim of fighting the Nazis by Ukraine.
Sergei K. Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister, called the attack a terrorist act. “In response to a similar action by Ukrainian fighters, we will respond operationally and very harshly,” he said at a gathering of security officials in Moscow, Russian media reported.
Ukrainian officials denied leading the assault and said only Russian citizens crossed the border.
The looters, a motley group of Russian exiles who fought on the Ukrainian side during the war, said much the same thing when they met journalists in the forest, in a region of northern Ukraine torn from the Russian occupiers last spring.
The Ukrainian military said a commander, who asked to be identified by his code name, White Rex, “wished us luck” but did not enter Russia.
But the fighters made it clear that they were consulting the Ukrainians.
“Everything we do within the borders of Ukraine, we obviously coordinate with the Ukrainian military,” White Rex said. “Everything we do, every decision we make, beyond state lines, is our decision.”
The fighters floated. Commanders and soldiers, some with camouflage buffs drawn on their faces, stood with machine guns in front of an armored personnel carrier they said they captured and chased out of Russia.
They mocked the Russian response to the raid.
“The reaction was slow, panicky, disorganized and didn’t start for hours,” said a commander who asked to be identified by his nickname, Cesar.
The Kremlin, eager to discredit renegade Russians, branded them neo-fascists. White Rex described himself as “right-wing” but denied any fascist leanings. His goal, he said, is to help Ukraine win the war and then pursue an armed revolution in Russia against the Putin government.
“Should we care how our enemy insults us? he said.
The press conference in the forest was intended as a sort of victory lap, but the fighters maintained a strict time limit for the rally lest it be targeted by a Russian missile. After about 40 minutes, the soldiers drove off in pickup trucks and, with the roar of a diesel engine, what they said was the captured Russian armored personnel carrier.
Evelina Riabenko And Milana Mazaeva contributed report.