Russia has claimed that its army “fully liquidated” pro-Ukraine militias who made a two-day incursion on its territory, an embarrassing episode that points to broader failures more than a year into President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
The apparent ease with which two Ukraine-based groups of far-right Russian nationals penetrated Russia’s border and temporarily “liberated” a village raised rare public criticism from local authorities, prompting the Kremlin to play down concerns.
Russia had “blocked off and routed the nationalist groups, [then] beat [them] back into Ukrainian territory”, said Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, in a public broadcast on Wednesday, adding that “more than 70 Ukrainian terrorists have been destroyed”. He vowed that Moscow would “react in a timely and extremely vicious fashion to similar acts by Ukrainian fighters in the future”.
A Ukrainian military intelligence official on Tuesday admitted co-operating with the groups behind the raid, the Russian Volunteer Corps and Free Russian Legion, which have taken responsibility for the Belgorod incursion and a string of similar incidents this spring.
Ukraine has hailed the attacks as evidence of both an anti-Putin uprising among Russian nationals and Moscow’s weak control of border regions.
The Russian army has been keen to play down the apparent shortcomings that the attacks exposed.
On Tuesday, bloggers close to the defence ministry released two videos showing Alexander Lapin, a senior Russian general and head of the army’s ground forces, urging a small group of soldiers: “Forward, lads, for the motherland!” down a bucolic village street as part of what they said was the fightback against the militias.
But no signs of fighting were audible or visible in the clips, which were filmed 5km away from where the fighting took place, according to Russian independent news outlet Agentstvo.
On Wednesday, the defence ministry said a Russian warship had repelled an attack by three Ukrainian naval drones in Turkish economic waters in the Black Sea.
The defence ministry suggested that the drones had planned to attack two pipelines carrying Russian gas, implying that Ukraine was also responsible for the explosions at its Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic in September last year.
Russia produced no evidence to support the claim other than grainy video of three small drones coming under fire at sea. Ukraine, which has accused Russia of carrying out the Nord Stream attacks, and Turkey did not immediately comment.
The Russian defence ministry also came in for rare criticism from Viacheslav Gladkov, the governor of Belgorod, in a late-night webcast after a local resident complained that the border was “full of holes”.
Gladkov told the resident that he agreed and that he had “even more questions for the defence ministry than you do”. “We need to draw conclusions from the mistakes that were made,” Gladkov added.
Asked about Gladkov’s comments, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the war with Ukraine required “very difficult and tense work” that “constantly creates questions that are asked and answered”.
The regional governor’s voice added to growing criticism of the Russian defence ministry by hardliners grouped around Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner paramilitary group.
Russia’s forces are on the verge of capturing the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut — a symbolic triumph after the army failed to make significant advances since early last summer.
But the huge losses of men and material that the invading forces have sustained in Bakhmut, coupled with a failure to make progress elsewhere on the front lines, has raised fears that Russia could find itself on the back foot after a much-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Prigozhin said in an interview released late on Tuesday that about 15,000-16,000 of Wagner’s forces, mostly comprising convicts released from prison to fight in Ukraine, had died, with about as many sustaining serious injuries.
Those apparent casualty figures are the biggest admission that any senior Russian figures have made of Moscow’s losses during the conflict.
Prigozhin has taken on an outsized role in Russia’s war effort as the regular army’s offensive continues to sputter.
Although Putin thanked Wagner specifically for its role in advancing through Bakhmut last week, Prigozhin remains embroiled in a public conflict with the army’s leadership, which he accuses of deliberately starving the paramilitaries of ammunition.
In the interview, Prigozhin said Russia’s army had “shat the bed” during the initial invasion and claimed that “things still aren’t coming together” more than a year later.
The war “was done to ‘denazify’ Ukraine, and we made them a nation famous the world over”, Prigozhin said. “How did we demilitarise them? We’ve militarised them somehow. They have one of the strongest armies.”
Prigozhin said that Russia needed to declare martial law, mobilise more men into the army, and divert all the economy’s resources towards producing munitions. “We are at the point when we could just fuck up Russia,” he added.