Russia says air force, artillery wipe out border attackers

A woman carries apples walks past the site of a missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near the Russian border in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on 21 October, 2022Reuters

Russia said Tuesday that it had deployed jets and artillery to destroy an armed group that penetrated its border from Ukraine, while the Kremlin ordered its military to prevent any repeat attack.

The incursion was the most serious since Moscow launched its large-scale offensive in Ukraine last year, prompting the Kremlin to express “deep concern” and order the evacuation of nine villages in the southern region of Belgorod.

The defence ministry’s announcement of use of its air force and artillery on Russian territory confirmed an unprecedented use of force domestically since the offensive began.

“In the course of the counter-terrorist operation, the nationalist formations were blocked and destroyed by air strikes and artillery fire,” the ministry said.

“The remaining (fighters) were driven back to the territory of Ukraine, where they continued to be hit by fire until they were completely eliminated,” it said.

Authorities said 13 people had been injured as the Belgorod region came under sustained artillery and mortar fire during the fighting.

They also reported that one woman died during evacuations on Monday, and that a civilian was killed in the village of Kozinka.

Moscow said Russian forces killed more than 70 Ukrainian fighters, though AFP was unable to independently verify the claims.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow needed to avoid further Ukrainian incursions into Russia and voiced “deep concern”, calling for “more effort from us... so that this does not happen again”.

Belgorod’s governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said civilians were evacuated from nine border villages in the region, which has previously faced shelling attacks that have killed dozens of people since Moscow launched its offensive last year.

‘Is everything normal?’

In Moscow, 70-year-old engineer Sergei Rusakov said the border incursion should act as a wake-up call for Russians in the south of the country.

“I think Belgorod residents need to think—not to lie on the couch but scratch their heads and ask themselves, is everything normal in the Russian state?” he told AFP.

In Kyiv, 46-year-old advertising agent Sergiy said the incursion was evidence that both Russian and Ukrainian forces could launch offensive operations and that the outcome of the conflict could still be unpredictable.

“I really hope that what is happening is in favour of our victory—whoever did it,” he said.

Members of two anti-Kremlin groups, the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, have claimed responsibility while Kyiv denied involvement.

“We are not waging war on foreign territories,” Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said.

In a video purportedly released by the Freedom of Russia Legion on Monday, a camouflaged spokesman, surrounded by armed men in fatigues, said: “Russia will be free!”—a slogan frequently used by Russian opposition activists.

Several drones struck houses and a government building overnight but no one was killed, the governor said.

Gladkov added Tuesday that it was too soon for residents who fled to return, and that authorities would give the all-clear when it was safe.

‘Guerrilla groups’

But Gladkov announced Tuesday the lifting of the exceptional security measures.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence said that “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”.

Ukraine presidential advisor Mikhaylo Podolyak suggested that Russian “guerrilla groups” could be responsible.

The anti-terror regime gives special powers to security services with beefed-up security and communications surveillance.

A similar regime was in place in Chechnya between 1999 and 2009, when authorities battled insurgents during Moscow’s second military campaign in the mountainous region.

The attack on Russia’s region was reported ahead of a widely expected Ukrainian offensive, though President Volodymyr Zelensky has said his country is not yet ready.

Russia has been reinforcing hundreds of kilometres of front lines with tank barriers, trenches and troops.

Zelensky on Tuesday visited Ukrainian troops on the frontline in the eastern region of Donetsk, where Russian forces have concentrated their efforts to capture territory.

“Every day on the battlefield, Ukrainian marines prove that they are a powerful force that destroys the enemy, liberates Ukrainian land and performs the most difficult tasks in the most difficult conditions,” Zelensky said.

“And we need more of this force. So, from today, we are significantly increasing the potential of the marines and creating a marine corps,” Zelensky said.

Also on Tuesday, Russia said it had scrambled an Su-27 fighter jet to “prevent violations of the state border” by two US Air Force strategic bombers flying over the Baltic Sea.