Ukrainian officials say the fighters were acting on their own when they raced across the Russian border and shot up Russian towns in the Belgorod region earlier this week, in a two-day raid that was extensively cataloged on social media.
Members of the Freedom for Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps – both made up of Russian citizens who are fighting in Ukraine against their motherland – all fall under the command of the Ukrainian security forces.
“Was this an independent action uncoordinated with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, or did they give you instructions?” I asked Dennis Nikitin, leader of the far-right Russian Volunteer Corps on Wednesday.
He replied, “Obviously, everything we do, every decision we make behind, beyond the border [in Russia] … is our own decision.”
But he went on to admit a certain “encouragement and help and aid.”
“What we do, obviously, we can ask our, let’s say, [Ukrainian] comrades, friends for their assistance in planning. What do you think about this? Could you tell us if this is a plausible mission? Would it help Ukraine in this fight or would it make things worse?” Nikitin said.
“They will say ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘this is a good idea’, ‘this is a bad idea’. So this is a kind of encouragement and help and aid.”
Nikitin didn’t actually do a stage wink, but he might as well have.
Similar signals came from “Caesar,” the nickname of the spokesman for the Freedom for Russia Legion, a more moderate anti-Putin formation of a few hundred men which is also dedicated to ending the war in Ukraine and to toppling Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Asked whether it was true that the Russian dissidents had used some US-made MRAP armored vehicles – perhaps even vehicles donated by the United States to Ukraine – Caesar said: “We used Humvees also. We buy them in international shops, war shops. Yeah … everyone who has some money can do it.”
He was wryly and consciously repeating a Russian propaganda trope dating back to Moscow’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when the Kremlin denied its troops were on the ground and suggested that pro-Moscow rebels had bought Russian vehicles on the open market.
The use of US vehicles in the operation has provoked minor consternation in Washington.
“The US government has not approved any third party transfers of equipment to paramilitary organizations outside the Ukrainian Armed Forces, nor has the Ukrainian government requested any such transfers,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said on Tuesday, emphasizing that the US would “keep a close eye” on the issue.
The West has insisted that Ukraine not use weapons it receives from members of the NATO security alliance inside Russia. A strike against a Russian target inside Russia itself using the UK-provided Storm Shadow cruise missile, for example, would risk the appearance of bringing NATO into direct conflict with Moscow.
But MRAP armored vehicles are armored trucks. It’s the weapons systems that really matter.
Ukraine doesn’t want any credit for the raid into Russia. So it has used Russians to do the job, and claimed they’re not under Ukrainian orders, this time.
Nevertheless, Kyiv will be delighted by the result. The dissident raid has had the desired effect – destabilizing Russia.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary company that’s been fighting in Ukraine alongside Russia’s military has already seized upon the raid as a proof of the military’s ineptitude.
“Sabotage and reconnaissance forces calmly enter Russia and march, uploading videos, driving their tanks, armoured infantry vehicles. Where’s the guarantee that they will not enter Moscow?…So far as I understand, nobody gives a sh*t about residents of Belgorod region,” thundered Prigozhin on Tuesday in an interview with pro-Russian blogger Konstantin Dolgov.
“I say to the elite of the Russian Federation – you sons of bitches, gather your children. Send them to war. When you come to a funeral and start burying them, people will say: ‘It is all fair now.’”
If not, warned the mercenary leader who still claims to back Putin, “All these divisions can end in what is a revolution, just like in 1917.
It’s safe to assume that the scions of Moscow’s nomenklatura will not suddenly be flooding through the doors of recruitment offices for either the armed forces or Prigozhin’s dogs of war.
But chaos in the ranks of the enemy amounts to victory, according to the eponymous doctrine of Russian armed forces general Valery Gerazimov.
And Caesar is confident that Moscow’s been rattled.
“They [Russians defending Belgorod] were too stupid and too slow. About five hours, about five hours [to react]. They only try to understand what’s happened. It was about one mechanized company to, to force the counterattack. Yesterday, we destroyed those mechanized company. We bring them heavy casualties,” he said in English picked up in his school in Russia.
“It’s just a little beginning, just for reconnaissance,” he added.