For the last two days, any news about Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been all but drowned out by Russia’s invasion of … Russia. On Monday, fighters reportedly belonging to the Freedom of Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps crossed the border into Belgorod oblast and swiftly moved through the town of Kozinka, where they captured a Russian BTR-82A armored personnel carrier, before going on to the village of Glotovo. On Monday night, video showed more trucks reportedly belonging to these organizations moving into the area, and videos on Tuesday morning showed these forces apparently moving with ease along the highway between the two locations.
The immediate reaction from many quarters was a kind of celebration. While most people realized that this was a small action that posed no actual threat to the government of dictator Vladimir Putin, just the thought of this Russian-on-Russian action was enough to spark visions of the breakdown in the Russian military and civil structure that has seemed so possible since the war began. That it was just a few guys and Russia still couldn’t mount any kind of effort to push them out only made it more hilarious.
As pleasing as it may be to contemplate a Russian collapse, the people involved in this Belgorod homecoming are definitely not heroes. Announcements from these groups have included genocidal messages about LGBTQ+ people that make Russia’s abusive and inhuman practices seem mild. At least one of those featured in the videos is an out-and-out neo-Nazi who has previously listed Timothy McVeigh among his idols. These are not the good guys, and it’s unclear if anything about this is really helping Ukraine.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Associated Press quoted a senior official in Moscow who claimed that Russian troops had “killed more than 70 attackers in a battle that lasted around 24 hours,” ending the incursion into Belgorod oblast. At the same time, videos and images continued to show those anti-Putin Russians very much alive—and apparently unharassed—as they moved deeper into Russia, reportedly approaching the more substantial town of Grayvolon. At about 9 AM ET, pro-Russian group Rybar stated that fighting between the “Ukrainian saboteurs” and Russian forces was ongoing, with the Russian forces under the command of Chief of Staff of Russia's Ground Forces Alexander Lapin.
So … they’re all dead. Except they're not. And the fight is ongoing. Maybe.
The Rybar message seems to indicate that Russia is treating this seriously, but considering how long the would-be Belgorod nationalists have played around inside Russian territory, it seems like a case of trying to slam a big barn door shut well after the horses have escaped—the horses in this case being any concept that Russia has decent border security, or that it is capable of addressing an armed force inside its own territory.
While no one should expect that this series of events will result in a lengthy conflict within Russia, that doesn’t mean it won’t result in some of the 97% of the Russian military currently deployed in Ukraine heading back across the border. Because the one thing that seems obvious now is that had this been a serious incursion supported by more than a handful of guys in purloined vehicles, they very well might have plunged straight on to the city of Belgorod, capturing military bases and rail junctions in passing.
Russia’s internal defense turns out to be nonexistent, and on Russian television, they acknowledge that fact.
It would be nice to think that back in the basement of the presidential palace in Kyiv, some military planner was tapping a pencil against his teeth and thinking, “How can we convince Russia to move significant forces off the front line before the counteroffensive, and also get rid of these neo-Nazi asshats who don’t want to listen to orders anyway? Hey! How about we...” But it’s very unlikely that happened.
The best bet is that the Freedom of Russia Legion and RVC guys got bored staring across the border and did what another group of the same guys did back in March, when the Russian Volunteer Corps strolled into the villages of Lyubechane and Sushany in Bryansk oblast. That event, which involved a reported 45 members of the RVC, seems very similar to what’s happened in Kozinka and Glotovo. The group, on that occasion, also easily pushed past an unprepared border guard, reportedly destroying two vehicles in the process. After a day of walking around, raising flags, and confusing local civilians, they withdrew.
In both cases, the official Ukrainian military position has been that they did not send these forces or authorize them to go. Which is easy to believe. Ukraine is extremely sensitive to the idea that it is the victim of this conflict. As appealing as it may be to seek revenge on the Russian side of the border, especially after watching Bakhmut get slowly pulverized over the last eight months, Ukraine, for the most part, has demonstrated extreme restraint. Any military crossing of the Russian border by ground forces is likely to be part of a broader strategy—and watching neo-nazis go wild in a U.S.-made MRAP is not that strategy.
It’s quite possible that the incursion into Belgorod will end the same way as the one into Bryansk, with most of the RVC forces slipping back across the border. But Russia doesn’t seem to think that’s the only possibility.
The guys who crossed the border into Belgorod may simply be off the leash. On the other hand, there have now been two such events, at almost opposite ends of the current border between Russia and Ukraine. In both cases, Russia’s border defenses have proved inadequate, and they apparently have no ability to rapidly address such breeches with the air forces, Rosgvardia, or those vaunted VDV paratroopers. As a test of Russia’s ability to respond to an unexpected assault, this could score at least a B+. Russia’s response is definitely an F.
Ukraine is still building a ‘new army’
One reason that Ukraine may not have pushed for this week’s crossing into Belgorod is that they’re still not prepared to launch their counteroffensive. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Ukraine isn’t just training the forces that make up those nine, or ten, or twelve new battalions by having them shoot off blanks on training courses in western Ukraine. Those people have also been spending time at the front, confronting explosions, enemy fire, and the hardest thing of all—learning to fire at fellow human beings.
“What if he’s one of our guys?” the soldier asks.
“Fire,” Pain orders again. “Fire.”
When the soldier hesitates, Pain shoots his own rifle over the man’s shoulder. Eventually, the other soldier starts to fire as well.
Some of those soldiers at the front lines in Bakhmut ended up firing 1,000 rounds a day. They’ve had their turn fighting in muddy trenches and sheltering from massed artillery fire. They’ve had the excitement of advancing to take an enemy position, but they’ve also surrendered ground. They’ve lost people. Some of them are also veterans of the Kharkiv counteroffensive last fall.
Watching months of videos and images showing Ukraine forces training in western Ukraine and in other countries, it’s tempting to think of the troops about to enter the battle at the counteroffensive as recruits fresh from basic. Some of them are. But most of these forces are far from green, and their training is anything but basic.
They’re going to come to the front not just carrying new weapons and new knowledge, but with the memories of what it meant to stand in a muddy trench and watch the people around them fall. None of them is going to want to be in that position again.
Two weeks in the trenches
New Yorker has a closeup look at what two weeks in those trenches on the front lines are like. In this case, field reporter Luke Mogelson joined a small group of Ukrainian soldiers in a tough spot on the front lines. Their small log-fortified home inside one of the trenches had been identified by the Russians and was constantly targeted by both artillery and missiles launched from helicopters. They were surrounded by a field of craters, and by tattered remnants of the dead. They had simple instructions that were hard to follow: Don’t leave, but don’t die.
It’s a very tough read, and not least of all because these men have been fighting for so long, all over Ukraine, and even victory only brings them reassignment to another battlefield.
The 28th Brigade was at the forefront of an ensuing campaign to liberate Kherson. For some six months, the Russians staved off the Ukrainians with a deluge of artillery and air strikes, exacting a devastating toll whose precise scale Ukraine has kept secret. Finally, in November, Russia withdrew across the Dnipro River. Battered members of the 28th Brigade were among the first Ukrainian troops to enter Kherson. Crowds greeted them there as heroes. Before they could recover, they were sent three hundred miles northeast, to the outskirts of Bakhmut, a besieged city that was becoming the scene of the most ferocious violence of the war.
The men in this story are almost the opposite of those in the Journal piece. For them, there have been no lengthy rotations away from the front. For the new soldiers who have joined them, there has been little time for any training at all. They were smashed by Wagner forces in the suburbs of Bakhmut, put at the center of artillery strikes near the city, and given raw recruits to replace their heavy losses. Of the 600 who started off together from Odesa, barely 100 remain.
Hopefully, when that counteroffensive finally comes, it will be their turn to follow, not lead. Or better yet, time to rotate far from the front lines to rest, if not recover, from everything they have seen.
With the distraction of Belgorod, it was easy to miss that the Russians got their butts handed to them in a big way directly west of the city of Donetsk. Russia tried to move forces down the E50 highway, and it very much did not work out for them.
Not only did the Russians lose a reported 20 vehicles, they also saw a large number of infantry both killed and captured. Some of this fighting appears to have been to the southwest of the circled area on the map above, putting it even closer to the city of Donetsk and well inside the territory that Russia nominally controls. This could indicate that an attempted Russian attack is resulting in not just a loss of men and materiel, but also a loss of territory.
The Ukrainian military thought it was a good day for a rerun of this classic video.
Dimitri of WarTranslated has been doing the essential work of translating hours of Russian and Ukrainian video and audio during the invasion of Ukraine. He joins Markos and Kerry from London to talk about how he began this work by sifting through various sources. He is one of the only people translating information for English-speaking audiences. Dimitri’s followed the war since the beginning and has watched the evolution of the language and dispatches as the war has progressed.