Kyiv denies Moscow's claim of Ukrainian saboteurs crossing into Russia, launching attack
Ukraine alleges such attacks are from armed Russian opposition groups
Russia said on Monday it was battling a cross-border incursion by saboteurs who burst through the frontier from Ukraine, in what appeared to be one of the biggest attacks of its kind since the war began last year.
The governor of Russia's Belgorod region said a Ukrainian "sabotage group" had entered Russian territory in the Graivoron district bordering Ukraine, and was being repelled.
But the Ukrainian outlet Hromadske cited Ukrainian military intelligence as saying two armed Russian opposition groups, the Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), both consisting of Russian citizens, had carried out the attack.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin had been informed and that work was under way to drive out the "saboteurs," the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.
A senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Kyiv had nothing to do with the incursion, putting it down to Russia's emerging "violent resistance movement."
Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram that the Russian army, border guards, presidential guards and the FSB security service were involved in the operation. He said at least six people had been wounded and three houses and an administrative building damaged.
The Telegram channel Baza, which has links to Russia's security services, said there were indications of fighting in three settlements along the main road leading into Russia. The "Open Belgorod" Telegram channel said power and water had been cut off to several villages.
Reuters was unable to verify the reports and the Ukrainian military was not immediately available for comment.
A group calling itself the Liberty of Russia Legion — a Ukraine-based Russian militia led by Russian opposition figure Ilya Ponomarev that says it is working inside Russia for Putin's overthrow — said on Twitter it had "completely liberated" the border town of Kozinka. It said forward units had reached the district center of Graivoron, farther east.
The Legion and the RVC completely liberated n/a Kozinka, Belgorod Oblast. Forward units have entered Graivoron.<br><br>Moving on. <br><br>Russia will be free!—@legion_svoboda
In a written statement to Reuters, senior Zelenskyy aide Mykhailo Podolyak agreed with Ukrainian military intelligence.
"The Russian liberation movement can become something that will contribute to the correct end of the war in Ukraine and significantly speed up the beginning of transformational events in the Russian political elite," he said.
"The violent Russian resistance movement, whose architects are exclusively citizens of Russia itself, is gradually coming out of the underground. They are independent in their decisions, have certain experience, and are free from fear."
Ukrainian social media users made regular reference to what they called the "Belgorod People's Republic" — a nod to events in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 when Russia-backed militias purporting to be rebels against the Kyiv government declared "people's republics" in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukraine sees advances around Bakhmut
The reported incursion comes two days after Russia said it had captured the final few blocks of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Moscow's first substantial claim of victory since last summer after the bloodiest land battle in Europe since the Second World War.
But even as the Russians have pushed forward inside Bakhmut, their forces on the city's northern and southern outskirts were retreating last week at the war's fastest pace for six months, giving both sides reasons to claim momentum.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut now opens the way to further advances in Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine says its advance on the Russian forces' flanks is more meaningful than its withdrawal inside Bakhmut itself, and Russia will have to weaken its lines elsewhere to send reinforcements to hold the shattered city.
"Through our movement on the flanks — to the north and south — we manage to destroy the enemy," Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Monday in televised comments.
"By moving along the flanks and occupying certain heights there, our armed forces have made it very difficult for the enemy to stay in the city itself."
Ukrainian forces were still advancing, particularly south of Bakhmut, Maliar said, though she said fighting on the northern flank had become less intense for now. Reuters could not independently verify the situation in either location.
Maliar also said Ukraine still held a foothold inside the city, although independent monitors say any remaining Ukrainian presence there is unlikely to be substantial.
"Wagner Group mercenaries likely secured the western administrative borders of Bakhmut City while Ukrainian forces are continuing to prioritize counterattacks on Bakhmut's outskirts," the Institute for the Study of War think-tank said on Monday.
The battle for Bakhmut has exposed a rift between Russia's regular armed forces and Wagner, a private army whose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has been issuing daily audio and video messages mocking the generals.
In his latest message on Monday, he repeated a vow to pull his troops out of Bakhmut and hand it over to regular troops.
"If the Defence Ministry's own forces aren't enough, then we have thousands of generals — we just need to put together a battalion of generals, give them all guns, and it'll all be fine," he said.