Russian President Vladimir Putin awards deputy commander of the BARS-2 volunteer unit Alexander Kolesov with the Hero of Russia order during a state awards ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 23, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Moscow: Russia said on Tuesday it had routed fighters who crossed the border from Ukraine after two days of combat, in what appeared to be one of the biggest incursions of its kind of the 15-month-old war.

There was no immediate independent confirmation that the fighting had ended, although one of two groups claiming to be behind the raid said in a post on social media: “One day we will return to stay.”

The two days of fighting had forced Russia to evacuate towns along the Ukrainian border. Russia has blamed Ukraine for the attack, which Kyiv denied. The two groups that claimed responsibility describe themselves as Russian armed dissidents.

The Russian military said it had killed more than 70 “Ukrainian nationalists” and destroyed four armoured vehicles.

There was no independent confirmation of those losses.

Russian forces had surrounded the enemy fighters and defeated them with “air strikes, artillery fire and active action by border units”, the defence ministry said.

“The remnants of the nationalists were pushed back to Ukrainian territory, where they continued to be hit by gunfire until they were completely eliminated,” it added.

Earlier on Tuesday, regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov had told residents who fled the fighting the previous day that it was not yet safe to return.

Gladkov said one elderly woman had died during the evacuation. On Monday, he said at least eight people had been wounded, several buildings damaged and many residents had left.

Two groups

The two groups who claimed responsibility, the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), both say they comprise armed Russian fighters seeking to overthrow President Vladimir Putin.

The Legion says it is recognised by Ukraine and its members have fought there against Russia. The RVC has claimed responsibility for previous attacks inside Russia, including a cross-border raid in the neighbouring Bryansk region in March.

Kyiv “has nothing to do with it”, tweeted Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. “As you know, tanks are sold at any Russian military store, and underground guerrilla groups are composed of Russian citizens.” The RVC released video of a fighter with what it said was a captured armoured vehicle, putting a sticker with the group’s logo over the “Z” symbol used to identify Russian forces.

Other videos posted on Russian and Ukrainian social media channels showed pictures and video of what were described as captured Russian servicemen and their identity documents.

Mash, a Russian news channel on Telegram, said drones had struck the roof of the Russian FSB security service building in Belgorod city overnight, nearly 80 km (50 miles) from the district where the raid took place. It posted a picture of emergency vehicles outside the building.

Inside Ukraine, Russian forces are celebrating their first major victory in 10 months with the capture of Bakhmut, where thousands of troops died in months of fighting both sides call a meatgrinder. Kyiv says its forces have been making their own gains on the outskirts of the city to the north and south.