Ukraine Backed Partisans Attack Belgorod Oblast

Ukraine Backed Partisans Attack Belgorod Oblast

Ian Schmutzler, Writer

On May 22nd, 2023, the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps launched an incursion into the Russian oblast of Belgorod from Ukraine. After a conflict with local law enforcement and a reported series of drone strikes, the soldiers withdrew from Belgorod back to Ukraine. However, another recent incursion into Belgorod has raised concerns in the global community over how the situation will progress from here.

For context, both the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps are Ukraine backed paramilitaries that oppose Putin. Similar groups exist inside of Russia, including Anarcho Communists and various ethnic separatists. Many sabotage operations have hit Russian rail networks and recruiting stations, and a massive amount of Russian emigres have fled to Ukraine and joined volunteer legions.


The Freedom of Russia Legion, or FRL, wishes to bring democracy to Russia, with its spokesperson stating, “I am not fighting my motherland. I am fighting against Putin’s regime, against evil; I’m not a traitor.” The Russian Volunteer Corps, or RVC is a bit more controversial and contradictory, with its leader, Denis Nikitin, being described as a white supremacist and a Neo Nazi. The explicit goal of the RVC is to create a Russian ethnostate, although Nikitin’s proposed method for doing this is giving all ethnic minorities in Russia independence.


Both groups are made up of Russians who fled to Ukraine and POWs who were captured during the 2022 invasion by Russia who have become disillusioned with Russia’s cause. They’ve fought alongside professional Ukrainian troops and other anti Russian paramilitaries. While funded by Ukraine, they claim to operate independently and that their ultimate goal is the overthrow of Vladimir Putin.


Russia has alleged that an incursion was made into Bryansk and other western oblasts by the Ukrainian army. However, footage emerged online where the RVC claimed responsibility for the attack. At the time, this incident was largely dismissed by the global community. Given recent incursions, however, these claims have been given more weight.


The first major incursion into Belgorod was launched with a claimed goal of creating a demilitarized zone within Russian borders to protect Ukraine from attack. The first incursion was minor, only securing limited territory directly on the border and being forced out in two days. The second incursion, however, was launched on June first, and is still ongoing. This incursion has secured much more territory and has resulted in a greater international response. Russia claims that both attacks were carried out by “Ukrainian terrorists”, although all evidence points to the FRL and the RVC. The Kremlin claims to have killed over 100 “militants” and four armored fighting vehicles, alongside other pieces of equipment. However, the extreme nature of Russian claims and the tendency of the Kremlin to exaggerate Ukrainian losses to an extreme level has called these claims into doubt.


The response to this raid by Russia has been unexpected. While the official statements by the Kremlin have been fairly run of the mill, their response on the ground has been surprisingly minor. While the border had been heavily fortified prior to the incursions, the FRL and RVC seem to have faced relatively little resistance. Despite launching a direct attack on Russian soil, their forces have yet to be forced out of the territory they have captured. There’s also the civilian response. Civilians claim to have been sent messages by unknown persons that referred to Belgorod as the BPR, or Belgorod People’s Republic, in a direct reference to the Russia backed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Footage has emerged online of drone strikes in the oblast with audible cheering in the background.


Given the apparent lack of ability of the Russian army to force out the FRL and the RVC, it is worth wondering how long the situation will last. There are many other volunteer units fighting for Ukraine. One notable example are volunteers from Chechnya, an area in Russia that has repeatedly attempted secession. The Chechen volunteer formations claim to have several hundred soldiers. With many existing separatist movements and an apparent lack of ability to police its own borders, it’s worth considering if, in Belgorod, Russia has experienced the first shots of a civil war.