KYIV, Ukraine — Russian troops and security forces quashed an alleged cross-border raid from Ukraine on Tuesday, claiming to have killed more than 70 attackers in a battle that lasted around 24 hours, a senior Moscow official said.
Moscow blamed the raid that began Monday on Ukrainian military saboteurs. Kyiv portrayed it as an uprising against the Kremlin by Russian partisans. It was impossible to reconcile the two versions or to say with any certainty who was behind the attack or what the aims were.
The battle took place in the Belgorod region, about 80 kilometers (45 miles) north of the city of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. The region is a Russian military hub, home to fuel and ammunition depots.
It was not the first time Russia has alleged an incursion by Ukrainian saboteurs, but it was the first time the operation to counter the raid continued into a second day. The effort embarrassed the Kremlin and highlighted the struggles Moscow faces in its bogged-down invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed the armed attackers were routed by local troops, air strikes and artillery.
“The remnants of the nationalists were driven back to the territory of Ukraine, where they continued to be hit by fire until they were completely eliminated,” Konashenkov said, without providing evidence. He did not mention any Russian casualties.
Four armored combat vehicles and five pickup trucks used by the attackers were destroyed, he said. Local officials alleged drones and artillery were also used in the assault.
The governor of the Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said the raid targeted the rural area around the town of Graivoron, a town about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the border. Twelve civilians were wounded in the attack, he said, and an older woman died during the evacuation.
The Russian news portal RBK, quoting unidentified sources in the regional interior ministry and territorial police, said Graivoron came under heavy shelling that lasted about five hours early Monday.
After that, tanks fired at the Graivoron border checkpoint while the adjacent village of Kozinka came under mortar and rocket fire, RBK said, citing the same sources.
The attacking force was made up of 10 armored vehicles and an unspecified number of troops, it said.
Earlier Tuesday, the regional governor urged residents who had evacuated to stay put and not return home until they received official instructions to do so. He said a “counterterrorism operation” was underway. It was complete by early Tuesday evening, he said.
Gladkov also said that the Borisovka area, about 20 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Graivoron, was hit by fire from the Ukrainian side of the border on Tuesday. No casualties were reported, he said, but he did not elaborate.
Russian territory and Russia-occupied areas of Ukraine have also been hit by drones and explosions that have derailed trains, though Kyiv officials brush off accusations that they orchestrated them.
Ukraine said Russian citizens belonging to murky groups called the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion were behind the assault.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said the attackers were Russian dissidents unhappy about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies.
“These are Russian patriots, as we understand it. People who actually rebelled against the Putin regime,” she said.
The Freedom of Russia Legion said in its Telegram channel that the goal was to “liberate” the region.
The Russian Volunteer Corps implied in a Telegram post that the attack was over, adding: “One day, we’ll come to stay.” The post went up at around the same time as the Russian defense ministry comment about quashing the assault.
The U.K. Defense Ministry said it was “highly likely” that Russian security forces were fighting partisans in at least three locations in Belgorod.
“Russia is facing an increasingly serious multi-domain security threat in its border regions, with losses of combat aircraft, improvised explosive device attacks on rail lines, and now direct partisan action,” it said Tuesday in a tweet.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, its top law enforcement agency, announced an investigation into alleged terrorism and attempted murder in connection with the incident.
Belgorod officials earlier this year said they had spent nearly 10 billion rubles ($125 million; 116 million euros) on fortifications to protect the region from an incursion amid the war.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the raid “elicits deep concerns” and that a "bigger effort” was required to prevent such attacks in the future.
Peskov refused to say how many attackers were involved in the assault, nor would he comment on why efforts to put down the attackers took so long. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, he redirected those questions to Russia’s Defense Ministry and the Federal Security Service, or FSB.
Gladkov, the regional governor, said authorities imposed special controls, including personal document checks, and stopped the work of companies that use “explosives, radioactive, chemically and biologically hazardous substances.”
The Russian Volunteer Corps claimed to have breached the border in early March. The shadowy group describes itself as “a volunteer formation fighting on Ukraine’s side.” It's not clear if it has any ties with the Ukrainian military. The same is true for the Freedom of Russia Legion.
The Belgorod region in southwest Russia, just like the neighboring Bryansk region and several other areas, has witnessed sporadic spillover from the war, with its border towns and villages regularly coming under shelling and drone attacks.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces made minor progress against Russian forces on the edge of Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that Moscow claims to have captured, according to Maliar, the Ukrainian deputy defense minister.
She said Tuesday that Ukrainian troops still controlled the southwestern outskirts of the city and that fighting was continuing in the suburbs, on Russia’s flanks.
Ukrainian military leaders say the fight in Bakhmut isn't over.
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