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Belgorod drone attacks: Who, What and Why?

  Padmashree Anandhan
Research Associate National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

About the Author 
Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She is currently working on a book chapter on the growing divide between the international actors in deep sea mining.

During 22-23 May, Russia reported drone attacks in the Belgorod region, a few kilometres away from the Ukrainian border. Blaming the “Ukrainian Nationalists,” it announced a counterterrorism operation to push them back into Ukraine. 

There are claims and counterclaims by Russia, Ukraine and the US. This commentary looks at the significance of the region, providing a short note on the likely perpetrators, claims by different actors, and what they mean.

About the region: Geography and Demography
Belgorod is located in the western part of Russia, adjacent to the Luhansk region of Ukraine. Located 600 kilometres from Moscow, it plays a key role in keeping up the supply line of Russia in its military operation in Ukraine. In the 1700s, Belgorod was a part of Ukraine, consisted a majority of Ukrainians followed by Russians. Post 1900s this began to change, and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russians accounted for 94 per cent, and Ukrainians two per cent followed by the Slavs, Belarussians, and Poles.
According to a report by Carnegie on polls conducted by the Khroniki, the support for Russia’s military operation in Ukraine was 69 per cent in Belgorod. Unlike Moscow and St Petersburg, the location of Belgorod makes it vulnerable to attacks in Ukraine, provoking fear and hatred amongst the civilians. This can also be observed in the April polls held by “ExtremeScan” which found only 29 per cent to be supporting Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. This can be associated with the past, as Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk, known as the “red belt,” evolved from the values of conservatism. 

About the perpetrators
According to reports from Associated Press and the New York Times, two groups have claimed for the attacks, the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and (the Freedom of Russia Legion) LSR. The Russian Volunteer Corps, known as a “right-wing conservation, military, and semi-political organization,” its military equipment is self-sourced and claims to be operating in cooperation with Ukraine’s Armed Forces, while Ukraine has denied any involvement. In a statement released by the RDK group in August 2022, RDK has been working with Ukraine’s comrades to fight against Putin.

The next is the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) formed in August 2022. The LSR members were identified as Russian volunteers who aimed to free the people in the border settlements in Russia. Such volunteers are seen as those who crossed into Ukraine with no work experience and later changed their minds to fight. Ilya Ponomarev, an exiled former member of the Russian Parliament, stated that the incursions were an effort to force Moscow’s military to divert troops fighting in Ukraine and to destabilize Putin’s government by showing its inability to defend its long border with Ukraine.

Few members of LSR and RDK claim the incursion was aimed at creating a “demilitarized zone” between Ukraine and Russia and freeing the people from the border regions. While others claim on creating a dent in Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s popularity, proving the existence of a gap in Russia’s security and its vulnerability to such attacks. The motive of the members and supporters of these groups is yet to be known, while the hate against Putin and Russia is evident. 

About the claims and counter-claims

According to Russia’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, the attack was seen as a diversion or a response to Ukraine’s failure in Bakhmut. He claimed to have pushed back those who intruded back into Ukraine, killing 70 and destroying US-made weapon systems in the counteroperation. On the concerns of Russia’s security, it claimed on spending USD 125 million in installing “mines, trenches, and barriers” earlier to defence the border of Belgorod. Although the people were evacuated with no massive injuries reported, such a breach does question the security measures present inside Russia.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denied the allegations of Russia on the attacks inside Belgorod. The same was confirmed on 23 May by Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Maliar said: “People who actually rebelled against Putin’s regime” be behind the attack. President’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak the perpetrator groups to be “composed of Russian citizens.” Despite reports from the US intelligence on the militia groups to be operating under Ukraine’s military command or intelligence, they have been no claims so far from Ukraine’s forces. 

The US
On 22 May, the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank reported on Russia’s claims on the raids by the “Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) and Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR)” in Belgorod and capturing of Kozinka (Grayvoron region), Glotovo and Gora Podol (three to five kilometers from Ukraine border), later reclaimed by Russia. On 23 May, the New York Times reported on the US State Department Matthew Miller comments. He said: “We’re skeptical at this time of the veracity of these reports…the US does not encourage or enable strikes inside of Russia.” On the same, Pentagon spokesperson Patrick Ryder mentioned that the US had not approved nor received a request from Ukraine on sending equipment to the militia groups.

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