Ukrainian Raid into Russian Territory Exacerbating Shortage of Russian Military Resources

June 4, 2023
  • Nikolay Mitrokhin

    Research Center for East-European Studies at the Bremen University (Germany). 
Nikolay Mitrokhin writes that Ukraine’s recent foray into Russian territory aims to divert manpower and equipment from the main theater of war and create an image of Russians leading the attack. The Russian volunteers who were involved are far-right extremists who fled Russia for Ukraine after committing serious violent crimes.
A Russian volunteer fighting on the Ukrainian side. Source: VK
An earlier version of this article was published in Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft (IPG) in German. It has been updated by the author and reprinted with his permission

Around 9 am on May 22, the Russian border crossing Grayvoron on the Russia-Ukraine border, between Russia’s Belgorod Region and Ukraine’s Sumy Region, was fired upon by Ukrainian artillery, then attacked by two tanks and an infantry unit of up to 100 people. The attackers operated under the flags of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and the Free Russia Legion (LSR). The former had been fingered for multiple attacks on Russian territory, the first committed on March 2 in Bryansk Region.

Ukrainian raid lasts about a day

After the Russian border guards and a motorized rifle platoon that had been defending a huge complex of several large border crossing buildings and a large area around it withdrew, the tanks went back to Ukrainian territory.

In American Hummers and modernized Soviet armored personnel carriers, the infantry drove along an empty highway and rural roads for the next 3-4 hours without encountering much resistance, pushing about eight kilometers ahead to the outskirts of the administrative center Grayvoron. The unit took control of three neighboring villages located between the border and the district center.

In the middle of the day, approaching Russian troops and aircraft began hitting the positions of the attackers. By evening, the attackers had withdrawn to the border village of Kozinka, where there is a border crossing. There they came under Russian artillery fire and heavy bombing from the air. However, the Russian troops did not decide to “mop up” until the morning, meaning
“Ukrainian army fighters had occupied territory internationally recognized as Russia technically for about a day.”
Results of the foray

In the attack, 14 civilians were injured (including, possibly, because of Russian shelling of Grayvoron). At least one defender of the border checkpoint died – Yuri Gaevoi, the commander of the Preobrazhensky Self-Defense Battalion, who technically did not have military status. He was shot dead by the attackers, as in their words he “got caught in the middle.

In the regional governor’s address on the day of the incident, it was reported that there were no civilian casualties, though there was no mention of casualties among soldiers. Moreover, there has been indirect evidence that there were military losses, but so far only a few wounded are known. One of the border guards was captured by the attackers.

At least one Russian armored personnel carrier was captured and sent back to Ukraine. A Ukrainian missile shot down a helicopter over the region, which had taken off to repel the attack. The shelling also destroyed two Russian military trucks and an artillery piece.

According to their own information, the losses of the attackers included two killed and 10 wounded. According to official Russian information, 70 attackers were killed, though there are no photos or videos to confirm this. But there is a videowith at least five destroyed American light armored vehicles  and a pickup truck at the scene.

Plan for the raid as told by the attackers

One of the saboteurs, in an interview with the Russian oppositional newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said that as planned the action had failed. Many of the vehicles that the attackers were driving got bogged down in the mud that had appeared in the fields after rain.

Thus, a smaller than planned force took part in the attack. The forward units that made their way to Grayvoron did not receive reinforcements and therefore could not capture the administrative center as planned. Supposedly, after its capture, the detachments that crossed the border were supposed to hold it against Russian attacks. If this is true, then Grayvoron and the surrounding villages, located in a kind of pocket on the border, surrounded by Ukrainian territory on three sides, could indeed have been a springboard for the Ukrainian army. In that case, they could have ensured effective missile and artillery support from Ukrainian territory and have closed the sky above them with air defense.

How is this foray different from previous ones?

By the standards of the ongoing war, this episode could have been considered an ordinary foray, which, until the stabilization of the front in November last year, took place in the combat zone several times a week. However, the incident has attracted the attention of the media, the authorities and the public in both warring countries.
Firstly, this is indeed the first major incursion into internationally recognized Russian territory by the Ukrainian military. The RDK’s previous raids (mainly in Bryansk Region) had been carried out by small groups of up to two dozen militants. Having made their way through the forest to some Russian village in the border zone, they usually took some pictures at a sign on the road, handed out leaflets in the village and hid immediately after the appearance of reinforced groups of Russian border guards and the military.

True, in the first foray, undertaken, as mentioned above, on March 2, two civilians were killed when passing by in cars (the driver who was taking children to school died).

Secondly, for the first time the detachments, which included Russian citizens, put up a real battle on Russian territory. Ukrainian servicemen and politicians tried to present this as “the beginning of the real liberation of Russia” by Russian citizens.
“The raid clearly showed the weakness of the Russian army and its lack of operational reserves on what could be the most vulnerable segment of the Russia-Ukraine border.
In the near rear, there were no reserves either. According to available information, to repel the attack troops had to be rounded up from different parts of the region, though in the end it was units of a motorized rifle division transferred from the reserve of the Lugansk front – meaning from occupied Ukrainian territory – that played the key role.

A video showing Deputy Commander of the United Grouping of Forces (in Ukraine) Alexander Lapin, who personally acted as a traffic controller for armored vehicles and infantry units during the advance in the Grayvoron area, received a lot of caustic comments on social networks from both opponents and supporters of the continuation of the war.

Fourthly, it became obvious that the system of fortifications being built for about a year on the Russian side of the border is completely ineffective (Russia.Post wrote about it in March 2023) and is capable of being run over by a column of enemy troops. This led to questions on social media about whether the funds allocated for fortifications in Belgorod Region had been embezzled, as they were in Bryansk Region.

In February, Senator Andrei Turchak proudly said about the fortifications in Bryansk Region that “a mouse could not slip through,” though just a month later the first RDK incursion took place. After that, three deputy governors who were responsible for preparing the region’s defenses were sacked. At that time, the “test” carried out by the RDK did not reveal any erected obstacles at the border besides rusted barbed wire, on which long-fallen trees lay.

As far as we know, the incursion recently made in Belgorod Region caused chaos across the region’s emergency services, which was further aggravated by a Ukrainian drone strike on the regional FSB building in the center of Belgorod.

Life on the border

After the Belgorod attack, the regional authorities sent buses to the district villages to evacuate the wounded and the population in general.
The attack clearly showed the danger to the population in Russia’s border regions, people who have been under fire from Ukrainian artillery for about a year now.
A market in Shebekino (Belgorod region) after the attack by Ukraine's armed forces in early June.
Source: VK
In their villages, fighting could flare up at any moment, for which the leadership of the region and local and district authorities are likely unprepared. For example, on May 27, the Ukrainian army launched a series of impressive strikes on the border town of Shebekino, in Belgorod Region, which had been repeatedly shelled earlier, including in previous days. Two factories were set on fire, a man died and even the regional governor came under fire, having come to see the damage from shelling on May 26, when one person had been wounded.

The resettlement of tens of thousands of people from at least three Russian regions looks like a complex and very costly task.

What did the organizers of the attack seek?

In all likelihood, the main purpose of the attack was to divert forces and resources for the defense of the border territories, which process has already begun, with units of the 30th Division already arriving in Grayvoron.

Moving forward, the Russian authorities will have to transfer more and more reserves from the front to defend the 300 kilometers of the border. Soldiers, armored vehicles, artillery, financial and material resources will be required to set up fortifications – i.e. everything that is already sorely lacking at the front and in the near rear on the eve of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. When it starts, the Russian command may not have enough of the very divisions that are now being forced to move to Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk regions.

Political aspects of the incident

Although the Ukrainian authorities and members of the RDK and LSR themselves continue to publicly insist on the absolute independence of their actions to “liberate Russia,” in reality these units are part of the Ukrainian army – unit number A3449 of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense, to which the International Legion is subordinate, consisting of groups, like the RDK and LSR, that unite citizens of foreign states.

However, the units consisting of Russians (the RDK and LSR) are very small. After the start of the war, Russian citizens were banned from entering Ukraine, meaning potential volunteers simply cannot get there, even if they had visas to enter the Schengen countries first. Thus, both units were created by Ukrainian military intelligence out of two groups of Russian political emigrants who arrived before 2022. They are supplemented by Russian citizens who, for some other reason, lived in Ukraine before the war and now want to defend it.

Far-right extremists among the attackers

Until March 2023, fewer than 10 people (even with covered faces) were present in the collective photos of the RDK, and no more than three in LSR photos. After the foray into Belgorod Region, the RDK and LSR held a joint press conference. It was attended by 27 people in uniform assigned to these units, even though about 150 people actually took part in the incident. This suggests that both units are designed primarily to create an image of the involvement of Russians in attacks on Russian territory.
Another political point is that
“Both units are more or less entirely made up of well-known Russian far-right extremists who fled Russia for Ukraine after committing serious violent crimes.
In particular, the leader of the RDK Denis Kapustin (Tikhonov) is known in Germany as an influential neo-Nazi and promoter of a subculture of violence.

In Russia, he was a close associate of Maxim Martsinkevich (nicknamed Tesak). He was saved from prison by emigration to Germany, where he was able to go as a member of the Jewish community.

However, in 2017 he was forced to leave Germany, where he had become known as a right-wing radical. Kapustin emigrated to Ukraine, where he had many ideological allies, with whom he organized mixed martial arts competitions for members of ultra-right groups from European countries.

The militant nicknamed Caesar, who officially represented the LSR (together with Tikhonov) at the press conference on May 25, is a former military instructor from the Russian Imperial Movement. This St Petersburg-based Nazi-monarchist organization has been recognized as a terrorist organization in the US for teaching far-right extremists from all over Europe how to fight. Its official combat unit in the Donbas was the Imperial Legion, from which at least 15 people died in battles in 2014-15 fighting on the Russian side. The name Legion of Free Russia and the call sign Caesar undoubtedly refer to this organization. Besides them, Alexei Levkin, a Nazi rocker and creator of the most popular neo-Nazi community on VKontakte called Votanyugend, who fought in Ukraine as part of the Azov Battalion from 2014, took part in the raid, along with other characters professing similar beliefs.

One of Levkin’s songs feature lines on behalf of SS Panzer Division stormtroopers: “We are walking at night in a foreign land / We will leave ashes and death on the way out.” At the end of April, the most popular Ukrainian news agency abroad UNIAN put out a video about the training of a Ukrainian army unit in new German armored vehicles, accompanying it with a recording of this song.

On May 30, UNIAN reported that the RDK had released a manifesto called “The Ethnic Man,” which stated that the organization was fighting for a “Russian nation-state” in which the land would “belong to those who were born on it” and the most important things would be “only blood, abilities and personal achievements.”
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