Ukraine-backed anti-Kremlin fighters say they are still operating inside Russia

By Thomson Reuters Mar 21, 2024 | 9:40 AM

KYIV (Reuters) – Three Ukrainian-backed paramilitary groups that purport to be made up of Russians opposed to the Kremlin said on Thursday their forces were continuing their cross-border attacks following a week of raids.

The groups launched incursions from northern Ukraine last week into the Russian regions of Kursk and Belgorod, claiming to have entered several villages on the Russian side of the border.

“The operation, even right now, is continuing. We will talk about our losses after it’s conclusion,” Denis Kapustin, leader of one of the groups, the right-wing Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), told a press conference in response to a question about the unit’s losses.

Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield claims.

Russian officials have made vague reference to “Ukrainian terrorists” in their comments about the groups’ recent attacks. They have previously cast the groups as puppets of Ukraine’s military and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The current raid follows previous actions by two of the groups in Russian border regions in May 2023.

The other two groups at the press conference in central Kyiv were the Freedom of Russia legion and the Siberia Battalion, which says it is comprised of indigenous groups from Russian territory.

They said they received intelligence and logistics support from the Ukrainian armed forces, but repeated their assertion that they were acting independently of Kyiv when fighting on Russian territory.

Kapustin said Ukraine provided ammunition and medical evacuation for his fighters.

However, asked about the provenance of the unit’s weapons, Kapustin smiled and said that one could buy tanks and rocket launcher systems in a military surplus shop.

He appeared to be referencing similar comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 when he dismissed a question about the Russian military’s involvement in the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.

Alexei Baranovsky, the spokesperson for the Freedom of Russia legion, said that in its raids outside Ukraine his unit used trophy weapons captured from Russia.

Kapustin said his unit had taken a total of 37 prisoners of war (POWs) during its latest operation, but that a prisoner swap was not yet on the cards, asserting that some of the prisoners had expressed willingness to join the rebel unit.

Kapustin’s far-right political background has been the subject of media attention in the past.

The Anti-Defamation League, a U.S. extremism watchdog group, has said he was a neo-Nazi, although Kapustin denies this and says he and his unit instead hold conservative and traditionalist views.

He said that his unit had already recruited fighters from Russian POWs, and that this included some former members of the Wagner mercenary group, whose former leader Yevgeny Prigozhin staged a brief mutiny against the Kremlin last year.

(Reporting by Max Hunder; Editing by Alex Richardson)