Russian raiders of Belgorod side with Ukraine but struggle to stick to Kyiv’s official line

In a gleeful parade of shameless propaganda, Russian dissident fighters back from a raid in their home country appeared in Ukraine with a trophy – a captured Russian armored vehicle – but struggled to stick to Kyiv’s official explanation of their exploits.

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.

They weren’t.

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.”

“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.

Sam Killey