KRAMATORSK (Ukraine) -- Fighting continued for a second consecutive day in the Belgorod area of southern Russia, as a paramilitary group aligned with Ukraine claimed to have seized villages and rebuffed counterattacks. This was the most dramatic example to date of the war entering Russian territory.
The Free Russia Legion - a group of Russian volunteer soldiers who have taken up arms in support of Ukraine - claimed responsibility for the incursion. Ukraine denied any direct involvement. This is a complete reversal of the Russian strategy, which was to send unacknowledged weapons and soldiers into Ukraine before the invasion last year.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on Tuesday afternoon that they had pushed militants across the border and that scores of "saboteurs", or rebels, had been killed. This claim was not verified. People who claimed to represent the fighters said that the attacks continued and gained new ground. These statements could not also be verified.
Military analysts believe that the incursion may force Russia to divert troops from a long, unevenly defended front of Ukraine's southeastern region before a much-anticipated Ukrainian offensive. The incursion was also intended to embarrass and unnerve the Russian leadership, by showing a weakening of border defenses.
A representative of the Free Russia Legion stated Tuesday that Ukrainian officers knew about the operation, but did not direct it. They claimed that the tanks used in the attack on Russia were captured by Russia's army from Ukraine. Russia claimed to have captured an armored vehicle made in the US that was designed to resist land mines and had been used during the attack.
"These are internal Russian tendencies dictated by citizens' desire to change the political systems of the country and stop the bloody conflict that the Kremlin unleashed," Maliar stated Tuesday on Ukrainian TV.
Ilya Ponomarev said that the Ukrainian commanders of the International Legion were aware of the operation, but they had not directed it. He was speaking in a telephone conversation with Ilya, an exiled Russian political figure who describes himself as the representative for the Free Russia Legion.
Ponomarev claimed that the Free Russia Legion had captured a dozen Russian border guards and that the soldiers were "inside Russia digging trenches and getting ready to defend the land they liberated." However, his claims could not be independently confirmed.
Ponomarev said the incursion was an attempt to "liberate" a part of Russian territory, to force the Russian military into diverting troops from the Ukraine conflict, and to destabilize the government of President Vladimir Putin.
According to a senior Ukrainian official who spoke under the condition of anonymity in order to discuss this sensitive mission, the Free Russia Legion has suffered losses, but not enough for them to affect their combat readiness.