A group of anti-Putin Russian nationals, who are aligned with the Ukrainian army, has claimed responsibility for an attack in Belgorod, as Moscow said it was fighting a group of saboteurs in the southwestern region.
In a Telegram post, groups calling themselves the “Freedom of Russia Legion” and “Russian Volunteer Corps” said they had “liberated” a settlement in the Belgorod region.
A Ukrainian official acknowledged that the units had carried out an operation in the area but insisted they were acting independently. “We can confirm that this operation was carried out by Russian citizens,” Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, told CNN.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin’s forces were working to push out the “sabotage and reconnaissance group” that had entered Belgorod, according to state media TASS.
The situation in Belgorod marks “the first time” that Ukrainian-backed forces have launched “a cross-border land operation against Russian targets,” according to CNN’s Sam Kiley.
“This is on a significant scale, and clearly intended to cause considerable consternation among the local authorities at the very least, if not at the level of the Kremlin,” Kiley told CNN’s Lynda Kinkade on Connect the World.
Regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said that at least three people had been injured in the attacks.
“They are in the hospital in a state of moderate severity. All necessary medical assistance is provided,” Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram.
He added that shells hit an administrative building in Belgorod and damaged three residential buildings, which caught fire. Gladkov also said a shell hit a kindergarten in the village of Zamostye, where another woman was injured with a hand wound.
He said earlier that Russian troops, the border service, the National Guard and the FSB “are taking the necessary measures to eliminate the enemy.”
Air defenses struck down an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the region, Gladkov said, adding that there were no victims and Russian authorities are looking into any potential damage on the ground.
Yusov, the Ukrainian intelligence official, said of the encroachment: “These actions are the consequences of intensified Russian cross-border attacks, which have led to victims and destruction.”
He added the units that had crossed the border were “part of defense and security forces” when they were in Ukraine, but were independent from Kyiv when they were not. “In Russia they are acting as independent entities.”
Aleksey Baranovsky, a representative of the Kyiv-based Russian Armed Opposition Political Centre – the political wing of the Freedom of Russia Legion – told CNN that the operation had started Sunday night and fighting was “ongoing.” He would not specify the number of fighters who had crossed the border into Russia.
Baranovsky said the group wanted to “liberate our motherland from the tyranny of Putin.”
In a Telegram post, the groups said they had “fully liberated the settlement of Kozinka of Belgorod region. [The] first groups have entered Grayvoron.”
“Russian forces are working to push out the Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group from the territory of the Russian Federation and destroy it. There are enough forces and means,” he told reporters.
Peskov made reference to Bakhmut, which has garnered an outsized importance in the conflict as Russian forces battle to capture the eastern Ukrainian city – while failing to make gains elsewhere.