Fresh from leading a military incursion into Russian territory, commanders of anti-Kremlin armed groups on Wednesday mocked the Russian Army for its slow response and threatened Moscow with more retaliation. -attack to come.
Russia, they told reporters at a news conference in a forest clearing in northern Ukraine near the border, must now understand that any section of the long border will be a new place to force the Moscow defense.
Military analysts suggested that the cross-border attack in the Belgorod region on Monday and Tuesday had a twin purpose, military and political.
It appears aimed at forcing Russia to withdraw unnecessary troops from the front in eastern and southern Ukraine, even as Ukraine prepares a counteroffensive. And it threatens to embarrass President Vladimir V. Putin’s government by showing Russia’s vulnerability.
The raid prompted a warning from the leader of Russia’s largest mercenary force, who said his country faces further military setbacks unless its ruling elite steps up – and it is unlikely popular – steps to win the war. The Kremlin, said Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner group, should order a new wave of military mobilization, declare martial law and force “everything possible” to make the bullets.
“We must stop building new roads and infrastructure facilities and work only for war, to live for a few years in the image of North Korea,” said Mr. Prigozhin.
The consequences otherwise, he said, could prove dire for a Russian elite he described as increasingly isolated from citizens. “Society always demands justice,” he said, “and if there is no justice, then revolutionary sentiments arise.”
Some Russian pro-war voices openly expressed fear that the Belgorod attacks would create new battlefield challenges for Russia, whose only significant military victory in the past nine month came in the past few days, when it claimed control of the ruins of the city of Bakhmut after a long, expensive battle.
Igor Girkin, a military blogger and former Russian paramilitary commander in Ukraine, warned of “the inevitable creation of a continuous front along this border, which must be filled from somewhere with combined arms units and formations of the Russian Armed Forces, are on the agenda.”
That will only help the Ukrainian military, said Mr. Girkin, who was accompanied by Igor Strelkov.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the attackers, who were members of two groups calling themselves the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, had been driven back to the Ukrainian border. But the attacks in Belgorod continued throughout the night, with a “large number” of drone strikes and damage to a gas pipeline that caused a small fire, the regional governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said. on Wednesday morning.
“The night was not completely calm,” Mr. Gladkov wrote in the Telegram, saying that houses, cars and office buildings in the city of Belgorod and other residences were damaged.
It’s unclear how the aftermath of the raid might play out in Russia.
Russian political analysts said the attack could stoke discontent over military incompetence among pro-war groups, but Mr. Putin took the opportunity to try to rally people around the flag. Already, the Kremlin has said that the raiders left American-made military vehicles inside Russia, and Moscow could use the far-right histories of some of the raiders to bolster much of the falsehood. claim to have fought the Nazis in Ukraine.
The Kremlin, eager to demonize rebel Russians, dismissed them on Wednesday as neo-fascists.
A commander of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Denis Kapustin, is a known far-right extremist. The Anti-Defamation League said he was involved in the Mixed Martial Arts world in Europe and that he trained young members of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany. At a news conference in northern Ukraine on Wednesday, he introduced himself to reporters by his call sign, White Rex.
Asked about his ultranationalist ideology he described himself as right-wing and said his views were “traditionalist” and “patriotic.”
Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, called the cross-border attack a terrorist act. “In response to a similar action by Ukrainian fighters, we will respond in an operational manner and very severely,” he told a gathering of security officials in Moscow, Russian media reported.
Ukrainian officials denied ordering the attack, and said only Russian citizens had crossed the border.
The raiders, a motley group of Russian exiles who fought on the Ukrainian side of the war, spoke similarly when they met with reporters in the forest, in a region of northern Ukraine that had been reclaimed from the conqueror of Russia last spring.
The Ukrainian military, Mr. Kapustin said, “wishes us well” but has not crossed into Russia.
But the fighters made it clear that they were consulting with the Ukrainians.
“Everything we do within the borders of the Ukrainian state we clearly coordinate with the Ukrainian military,” Mr. Kapustin said. “Everything we do, every decision we make, beyond state borders, is our decision.”
The warriors are happy. Commanders and soldiers, some with camouflage buffs pulled over their faces, stood with machine guns in front of an armored personnel carrier they said they had captured and taken out of Russia.
They mocked Russia’s response to the attack.
“The reaction was slow, panicky, disorganized, and didn’t start for hours,” said a commander who asked to be identified by his nickname, Cesar.
The news conference in the forest was intended as a kind of victory, but the fighters maintained a strict time limit on the gathering, so that it would not be targeted by a Russian missile. After about 40 minutes, the soldiers drove off in pickup trucks and, with the roar of a diesel engine, what they said was the captured Russian personnel carrier.
Evelina Riabenko and Milana Mazaeva contributed to the report.