Ukrainian-backed Russian rebel groups have said they are still fighting inside Russia’s Belgorod region, despite Moscow’s claims on Thursday to have repelled the incursion.
The Freedom of Russia Legion posted videos on social media of combat apparantly in the Belgorod village Novaya Tavolzhanka, between the Ukrainian-Russian border and the town of Shebekino, the legion’s stated goal.
Unlike the first major incursion into Belgorod on 22 May, the rebel group acknowledged it had met stiff resistance. “We have active fighting on the outskirts of the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka. Unfortunately, there are wounded legionnaires, but freedom is won through blood,” the legion said in a statement. “All the wounded have already been taken to hospital.”
The legion posted videos of fighters taking cover behind a brick wall and a tank manoeuvring in what was claimed to be Novaya Tavolzhanka. Another video showed smoke rising over a town alleged to be Shebekino. There was no way to independently confirm the claims.
In the initial raid in May, a second rebel group with far-right links, the Russian Volunteer Corps, claimed to have been involved. This time, the corps put out a video showing two fighters in some woods saying they were doing reconnaissance and that their followers would soon find out their plan.
Russian authorities claimed on Thursday to have repelled the rebel incursion, killing 50 of the raiders, but the rebels claimed to be still very much involved in combat on Friday. The Belgorod governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said two people had been killed and two injured by Ukrainian shelling on Friday.
“Fragments of the shells hit passing cars. Two women were travelling in one of them. They died from their injuries on the spot,” Gladkov said.
The Freedom of Russia Legion blamed Russian forces for the civilian deaths, saying they had opened fire on a civilian car “mistaking it for a car with our sabotage group”.
“At least two civilians were killed, and this is a direct consequence of the lack of professionalism of Putin’s army,” the legion said on the Telegram messaging app.
Ilya Ponomarev, a Russian defector who represents the Freedom of Russia Legion’s political wing, said the current raid aimed at Shebekino was a tougher mission than the first major incursion into the small border town of Grayvoron last month.
“The place this time is way larger and its more protected, so the tactics were different from the beginning, what kind of force was used and whatever,” Ponomarev said. “So we are learning as well and we’re trying different approaches.”
He said that fighting further east around the border village of Verigovka and the town of Urazovo, which had been reported by Russian military bloggers, was a diversionary attack
“It was from several directions like last time so the [Russians] were distracted and could not concentrate in one location,” Ponomarev said.
Russian military bloggers also reported there was fighting farther east in Belgorod, in the border village of Verigovka and the town of Urazovo, but there was no corresponding claim from any rebel group of a separate incursion there.
Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, made no mention of any fighting in the Belgorod region.
Ukrainian sources also posted pictures of an explosion in a port which they said was Berdiansk, a Russian-occupied town on the coast of the Azov Sea. A Russian-installed official in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region confirmed that the local port was hit, adding that Kyiv had “likely” struck Berdiansk with the British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
“Several people were injured,” Vladimir Rogov told the Tass state news agency.
The incursions in Belgorod and attacks on Russian supply hubs serve the purpose of disrupting Russia’s defences ahead of an anticipated high-stakes Ukrainian counteroffensive.