It is still unclear who exactly is behind the attacks on Belgorod. What is unpleasant for the Kremlin, however, is that it was caught off guard by the action. How vulnerable are Russia’s borders? By Yuri Rescheto and Sergey Dik.
Armed men from Ukraine invade Russian territory and seize village after village. A woman is killed, several people injured. There is a state of emergency in the regional capital. Hundreds are evacuated. The whole region is in turmoil and only a short time later the scene of an anti-terrorist operation by Russian armed forces and special forces.
Seventy Ukrainian attackers are said to have been killed in the process, Moscow claims. Kiev, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with any of this. They were Russian citizens, it is said, who are using them to fight against their President Vladimir Putin and his policies. For a new, free Russia.
What sounds like perfect material for an exciting political thriller is said to have happened in this way, or at least something similar, near the Russian-Ukrainian border in the Russian region of Belgorod. And even if the state of emergency was lifted just one day later, many questions remain unanswered.
Everything under control again?
The Kremlin is keeping a low profile, at least initially. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov is hiding behind general formulations, speaking, for example, of “deep concern” about the latest developments. Russian state television is all the louder. We are talking about Ukrainian terrorists, fascists, Western accomplices and other saboteurs.
But – and this is the leitmotif – the Russians have everything under control. Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of Belgorod, reassured: “All necessary measures will be taken by the authorities.” But is that so?
Ukrainian military expert Jan Matveyev is skeptical. He told Deutsche Welle that there was no question of a quick reaction from the Russian army: “Even after many videos and photos had appeared on the publicly accessible Internet, it took no less than an hour and a half before the Russian armed forces even began to react .” Matveyev finds this hesitation strange.
“Of course heads will roll, but television won’t show it all”
Russian political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin also suspects that the Kremlin was caught off guard by the action. But that’s no wonder for him, Oreshkin said in a Deutsche Welle interview: “War is war. And in war, whoever is faster wins. In this case, it was the Ukrainian side, which, contrary to what the Kremlin thought, did not just sit silently on the other side of the border and did not dare to cross.”
The Kremlin did not expect that not only Russia but also other states could violate the internationally recognized borders. Oreshkin is certain that the Russian elite would draw the necessary conclusions from this: “Of course, you know very well that one of them – to put it mildly – failed. Of course heads will roll, but television won’t show all of that.”
Border protection instead of frontline deployment?
Should Russia move part of its troops there after the attack on Belgorod, that would be a clear reaction. But that would be exactly what the attackers are aiming for, believes military expert Matveyev. He refers to the state of the Russian army, which is lacking in technology and personnel anyway: “On the one hand, it all has a psychological effect and is intended to scare the Russian generals: look, we can invade if we want to.”
In response, the Russian generals would then say: Let’s better protect our border. That in turn would have a material effect, forcing Russia to send some tanks and soldiers to the border instead of the front line, Matveyev concludes.
Nevertheless, Dmitry Oreshkin warns that everything that happened on the border with Ukraine could be used by the Kremlin for its propaganda purposes and could only reinforce Putin’s narrative: “Look, we were actually ambushed. Putin was right when he said that he had launched a pre-emptive strike, true to the motto: otherwise the Ukrainians would keep attacking us like this.”
What many experts seem to agree on, however, is that the incursion of armed men from Ukraine into Russian territory will not entail massive changes in military tactics. Much more important is the propaganda effect – on both sides.