RIGA, Latvia — More than 24 hours after a strange incursion near the Russian-Ukrainian border that President Vladimir Putin labeled a “terrorist attack,” there was no new clarity about the incident, in which the authorities said two people were killed.
But that did not prevent government officials and propagandists on Friday from seizing on the episode, in the Bryansk region of western Russia, to buttress their own positions, starting with Putin who, along with state television commentators, fanned Russians’ fears that the nation is under a constant threat of attack by terrorists.
Pro-war Russian hard-liners demanded revenge and a tougher approach, with mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group and a trenchant critic of Russia’s military, saying Russia’s “red line” — that it would not tolerate attacks on its own territory — had again been crossed.
“Red lines?” Prigozhin said, answering a question via his press service. “We seem to have run out of red paint, and instead of red, there’s brown.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine denied responsibility for the attack, insisting that it was a sign of internal strife in Russia and rising anti-Putin sentiment exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The cacophony of responses, including a claim of responsibility by the Russian Volunteer Corps, a group of Ukraine-based Russian far-right white nationalists fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war, put a spotlight on the swirling info-war that is being waged in parallel with the real combat, and also on some of the sinister forces — mercenaries, paramilitary formations, nationalist movements, and others — involved in both fights.
While the Russian Volunteer Corps has connections to the Ukrainian military, it operates independently, Ukrainian military officials said. It also is just one of an array of fighting groups — Ukrainian, Russian and others — that do not necessarily answer to the official military chain of command.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, released video footage Friday of two vehicles and inert drivers, claiming they were the victims killed by the fighters. One vehicle bore dozens of bullet holes. The video and the deaths of the men could not independently be verified.
Whatever actually happened, Putin used the incident to express concerns about Russia’s border defenses, already in question because of attacks inside Russia, including several drone incidents Tuesday and multiple attacks on Russian air bases in recent months, while Russian hard-liners used it to demand a tougher approach in the war.
Before a meeting of Russia’s Security Council on Friday, called in response to Thursday’s incident, Putin, looking grim, warned of the need to protect the nation’s security and law enforcement bases. “Colleagues, today we have to discuss one but very important issue: that is anti-terrorism security of sites of law enforcement agencies,” Putin said tersely before the council went into a closed meeting.
Hard-line nationalists expressed fury that the assault apparently went unpunished after the self-proclaimed perpetrators reportedly slipped back into Ukraine. For weeks, such hard-liners have voiced doubts over the Russian military’s capacity to inflict a major blow on Ukrainian forces as Moscow’s offensive on multiple fronts in Ukraine makes only glacial progress.
After months of fighting for control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and thousands of casualties on each side, Wagner fighters led by Prigozhin claimed to be on the verge of taking control of the shattered ruins of the city Friday, in what would be a long-awaited win for Russia. But Ukrainian military officials insisted that their units were not retreating.
Kremlin accuses Ukraine of violent attack in western Russia
In any case, Western military analysts contend that occupying Bakhmut will offer Russia scant military advantage, given the steep battlefield losses, and Ukraine has already prepared fallback defenses.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, the agency that probes major crimes, opened a terrorism case Friday to investigate Thursday’s cross-border attack. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said steps would be taken to prevent a recurrence of such attacks.
Russian authorities claimed that fighters crossed from Ukraine on Thursday, attacked two villages, took several hostages, killed two people and wounded a boy before fleeing back across the border, leaving behind many explosive devices.
But details of the attack remained extremely sketchy, with no video or clear description emerging of the incident itself, unusual in a war when major events are routinely filmed and uploaded.
The Russian Volunteer Corp posted two videos of fighters — including one that appeared to depict its leader, Denis Kapustin, outside a clinic in the village of Lyubechane, close to the Ukrainian border in western Russia — which offered the only clear evidence that the incursion took place.
A call to Kapustin’s phone Friday was picked up but yielded no answers to questions. A text message response from its user ruled out discussing Thursday’s incursion and declined to comment on claims by the FSB that two civilians were killed.
“I cannot tell any details regarding yesterday’s operation,” the text message said, “so if you want to speak on smth different you are welcome.” However, the user did not respond to further calls or messages.
Kapustin is a well-known far-right figure who lived for many years in Germany and was associated with hooligans involved in soccer violence.
The Russian Volunteer Corps, formed in August, is an anti-Kremlin group that believes that Putin is threatening ethnic Russians by turning Russia into a police state. While disdainful of the pro-European approach of President Volodymyr Zelensky, it sees Putin as worse.
The motive of the attack, according to one of the videos posted by the group, was to show Russian citizens that they could seize arms and rise up against Putin. Some Russian critics of the Kremlin suspected the incident could have been a Russian false-flag operation intended to justify a major escalation in the war.
As Russia’s military effort has foundered, Putin has come under increasing pressure from pro-war hard-liners, whose criticisms of the Russian military have largely been tolerated because they reinforce Russian support for the war, despite high Russian casualties.
Heavy fighting as Russians advance in Bakhmut, but Ukrainian units hold on
One military journalist and fervent supporter of the invasion, Yuri Kotenok, said Thursday’s incursion was “clear and visible fruit of the enemy’s impunity.” Moscow’s failure to pay attention to fugitives attacking Russia and “fifth columnists” inside the country only made the enemy bolder, “precisely because of our lack of resistance to evil,” Kotenok wrote on his Telegram blog.
“What else needs to happen for Moscow to stop being impotent in its retaliatory measures against the enemy? Should Ukrainians destroy a nuclear power plant or reach Red Square?” he wrote. “We need to take action!”
Like many other hard-liners, Kotenok blamed “the incompetence of the military leadership” and “limited armament capabilities” for Russia’s failure to ratchet up aggression against Ukraine.
The war blogger and propagandist Semyon Pegov lambasted Russian border officials for allowing the members of the Russian Volunteer Corps to escape from Russian territory after the incursion.
“In general, if the militants fled, this really requires more than serious measures. Another question is whether our border guards are provided with sufficient resources in order to fulfill their duties,” Pegov wrote.
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said no decision had been taken on introducing martial law in border areas, after the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose paramilitary troops have been fighting alongside Russian troops in Ukraine, called for such a step and “the maximum level of response” in areas bordering Ukraine.