The fighters who have claimed responsibility for a rare assault just over the Ukrainian border in Russia’s Belgorod region are members of a volunteer unit made up of Russian citizens who have been fighting with Ukraine’s forces against their own country.
The Free Russia Legion, as the volunteer unit is called, was created last August to provide a way for Russians opposed to the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine to take up arms and fight alongside Ukrainians. Fighting by these anti-Kremlin Russian volunteers has been confined mostly to the front lines in Ukraine, largely in and around Bakhmut.
That changed this week, when the group announced that its fighters, together with Russians from another group called the Russian Volunteer Corps, had crossed the border and “liberated” several settlements inside Russia. On Tuesday, the Free Russia Legion said that the fighting in the Belgorod region was continuing, although Russia’s Ministry of Defense said all the fighters who had not been killed had been pushed back into Ukraine.
“This is the first operation of the Legion on Russian territory, and in the future, the scale of our actions will only increase,” one Russian fighter, who goes by the call sign Caesar and took part in the operation, said in a text message.
Caesar, who is 50 and is a private with the Free Russia Legion, was responding to questions sent through a press officer for the group. The Russian Volunteer Corps, which claimed to have joined the Free Russia Legion in this week’s operation, took responsibility for a previous, more limited incursion into Russia in March.
The Ukrainian military’s involvement in the operation is not clear. The Free Russian Legion operates under the umbrella of Ukraine’s International Legion, a fighting force that includes units made up of American and British volunteers, as well as Belarusians, Georgians and others. It is overseen by Ukraine’s Armed Forces and commanded by Ukrainian officers.
A senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal details about the mission inside Russia, said that Ukraine’s military was acting largely in a support role, protecting Ukraine’s border in the area in case of a Russian counterattack. No Ukrainian fighters entered Russian territory, the official said.
There were losses in the units that took part in the operation, the official said, but not enough to affect their combat readiness. The official would provide no further details.
Until recently, the Free Russia Legion had received little attention, in part to protect the soldiers and their families from reprisals by Russia, but also because of Ukraine’s reluctance to highlight the exploits of soldiers whose home country had killed so many Ukrainians.
Several hundred Russians have been deployed to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, officials said, but Ukraine’s military has not divulged exactly how many Russians are fighting on the Ukrainian side.
The motivations of Russians fighting for Ukraine vary. In interviews earlier this year, some said they had already been living in Ukraine when the war started and felt a need to defend their adopted homeland. Others, often with no military experience, crossed into Ukraine after the war started and signed up to fight.
Joining is not easy, the Russian soldiers said. After filling out a detailed application, they undergo several rounds of background checks and take a polygraph. Distrust among Ukrainians is high. There have been several attempts by Russian intelligence operatives to infiltrate the Free Russia Legion, Ukrainian officials said.
A Russian defense ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that the fighters had been pushed back and that scores had been killed.
But Caesar said that fighting continued throughout the day on Tuesday and that a Russian infantry company had been wiped out. His claims could not be independently confirmed. The senior Ukrainian official said the military was awaiting confirmation, including video from drones, about the fate of the Russian infantry company.
“The goal of the operation begun yesterday was the creation of a demilitarized zone between Russia and Ukraine, the elimination of fighters who serve the Putin regime and a demonstration to the people of Russia that it is possible to create resistance and fight against the Putin regime inside Russia,” Caesar wrote. “These goals were successfully achieved.”