Russia said on Monday it was battling a cross-border incursion by saboteurs who burst through the frontier from Ukraine, in what appeared to be one of the biggest attacks of its kind since the war began last year.
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The governor of Russia's Belgorod region said a Ukrainian "sabotage group"had entered Russian territory in the Graivoron district bordering Ukraine and was being repelled.
But the Ukrainian outlet Hromadske cited Ukrainian military intelligence as saying two armed Russian opposition groups, the Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), both consisting of Russian citizens, had carried out the attack.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin had been informed and that work was under way to drive out the "saboteurs", the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram that the Russian army, border guards, presidential guards and the FSB security service were involved in the operation. He said at least eight people had been wounded and three houses and an administrative building damaged.
The Telegram channel Baza, which has links to Russia's security services, said there were indications of fighting in three settlements along the main road leading into Russia. The "Open Belgorod" Telegram channel said power and water had been cut off to several villages.
Reuters was unable to verify the reports, which dried up late in the day as Gladkov imposed a special regime allowing authorities to clamp down on movement and communications. The Ukrainian military was not immediately available for comment.
A group calling itself the Liberty of Russia Legion - a Ukraine-based Russian militia led by Russian opposition figure Ilya Ponomarev that says it is working inside Russia for Putin's overthrow - said on Twitter it had "completely liberated" the border town of Kozinka. It said forward units had reached the district centre of Graivoron, further east.
"Moving on. Russia will be free!" it wrote.
In a written statement to Reuters, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak echoed Ukrainian intelligence.
"The violent Russian resistance movement, whose architects are exclusively citizens of Russia itself, is gradually coming out of the underground," he said. "They are independent in their decisions, have certain experience, and are free from fear."
Ukrainian social media users made regular reference to what they called the “Belgorod People’s Republic” - a nod to events in eastern Ukraine in 2014 when Russia-backed militias purporting to be rebels against the Kyiv government declared "people’s republics" in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Ukraine's public broadcaster Suspilne quoted the Liberty of Russia Legion's press service as saying the situation on the ground was difficult but that the fighters were pressing their cause.
"The Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps are creating a demilitarized zone on the border with the Russian Federation, from where they will not be able to fire at Ukraine," the press service was quoted as saying.
"In the future, we are moving towards the liberation of all of Russia from Putin’s dictatorship and the end of the criminal war."
Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky, in his nightly video address, said Kyiv's foreign policy was aimed at getting the "maximum benefit of attention" for Ukraine's defence.
"And we will do everything so that this continues. To get greater results for Ukraine - in air defence, artillery, armoured equipment, shells, training. All this is critical."
UKRAINE SEES ADVANCES AROUND BAKHMUT
The Kremlin said the cross-border incursion aimed to distract attention from the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, which Russian forces claim to have captured in its entirety after more than nine months of attritional fighting.
Moscow says capturing Bakhmut opens the way to further advances in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine says its advance on the Russian forces' flanks is more meaningful than its withdrawal inside Bakhmut itself, and Russia will have to weaken its lines elsewhere to send reinforcements to hold the shattered city.
Ukrainian forces were still advancing, particularly south of Bakhmut, Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said, though she said fighting on the northern flank had become less intense for now. Reuters could not independently verify the situation in either location.
Maliar also said Ukraine still held a foothold inside the city, although independent monitors say any remaining Ukrainian presence there is unlikely to be substantial.
The battle for Bakhmut has exposed a rift between Russia's regular armed forces and Wagner, a private army whose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has been issuing daily audio and video messages mocking the generals.
In his latest message on Monday, he repeated a vow to pull his troops out of Bakhmut and hand it over to regular troops.
"If the Defence Ministry's own forces aren't enough, then we have thousands of generals - we just need to put together a battalion of generals, give them all guns, and it'll all be fine," he said.