Iris de Graaf
It started yesterday with panicky reports on social media: Ukrainian saboteurs allegedly crossed the border into Russia in the Bryansk region, about 400 kilometers southwest of Moscow. All kinds of contradictory information came out via Telegram.
Armed men allegedly took 10 to 100 people hostage. A bus carrying schoolchildren would have been shot at, killing a girl, a school would have been stormed and there would be fighting in one or two villages at the border.
Who are these men? Is it Ukrainians, Russians who are against the war, or is it staged by Russia to induce Putin to do “something”?
Since Moscow invaded Ukraine last year, Russia has repeatedly accused its neighbor of firing missiles at Russian border areas. Both countries also accuse each other of creating so-called ‘false flag’ operations.
Ukraine always denies having anything to do with incidents on Russian soil, saying these are simply the consequences of Russia starting the war. But for Moscow, denial doesn’t matter. Last year, for example, when the Crimean bridge was bombed, heavy Russian bombing of the whole of Ukraine followed as a reprisal.
Again, the Kremlin claims that “Ukrainian saboteurs” invaded border regions on Thursday. Putin accuses them of terrorism: “The Russian army will intervene harshly against those who committed another terrorist attack today. They have entered the border area and opened fire on civilians.”
Russia wants to frighten its people, thus justifying the attack on another country.
Kyiv says the attack in Bryansk was staged by the Russian secret service: “Russia wants to frighten its people, thereby justifying the attack on another country,” said an adviser to Ukrainian President Zelensky.
Putin spoke to his Security Council today about the attack in Bryansk. The outcome has not been disclosed, but Kremlin spokesman Peskov said in advance that Putin will take “additional measures” in the border regions to “prevent such developments in the future”. There has been a heightened state of military readiness in these areas since September last year.
Although much is still unclear about what happened in Bryansk, the picture is slowly becoming clearer. The deputy governor denied yesterday afternoon that a school bus was shot at. Local officials denied that a girl was killed and reports of a hostage-taking have not been confirmed.
What remains is the story that about 40 men from Ukraine entered one or more villages in Russia. It appears to be Russians fighting on the Ukrainian side.
Officially, the attack was claimed by a group calling itself the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVK), a battalion of armed volunteers affiliated with the Ukrainian army.
Extreme right background
“Russians! We came here to liberate you on your native soil, in opposition to Putin’s army of murderers and rapists. Pick up your weapons, don’t be a slave!”, it said in a video yesterday.
Some members of the RVK have an extreme right-wing background. Denis Kapustin, also known as Denis Nikitin, heads the corps. He is a notorious supporter of neo-Nazism.
But whether they are really the perpetrators, and if so, whether they acted on orders from Kyiv or Moscow, remains unclear.
Panic and restlessness
It also remains unclear who is behind the recent explosions, drone attacks and unexplained incidents in the border regions. For example, ‘objects’ have been coming down for a long time in Belgrorod, Tuapse, Bryansk and Adigea, among others.
Sometimes drones penetrate up to 600 km into Russia, as when one crashed in Saratov. And also closer to Moscow: on Tuesday a drone came down about 100 kilometers from the capital, yesterday heavy explosions were heard in Kolomna, 90 kilometers from Moscow.
Oil depots regularly catch fire, military planes crash for unknown reasons and radio and TV stations are regularly hacked. Just this week, tens of thousands of radio listeners heard an air raid siren and a call to go to the shelters. The airport in Saint Petersburg was also closed for a few hours as a precaution.
That has an effect. The fear is there. There is panic and unrest. Ordinary Russians feel that the “special operation”, which they prefer to ignore, is approaching. Military bloggers are furious: “How is it possible that drones can penetrate just outside Moscow?”, or “The borders were extra secured, why aren’t the security services doing their job?”, you read on social media.
More leeway for Putin
It will also make them nervous in the Kremlin. For years, Putin sold his regime as a paragon of stability and security. Moscow has been shouting for a year that everything is under control and going according to plan, but that is not consistent with what is happening in the border regions.
There is a realization that Russia can indeed be hit on its own territory, although the majority does not hold the president responsible for this. For most Russians, the “attacks” are confirmation that their country is under attack from the Ukrainian neo-Nazis backed by the West, just as television continues to tell them daily.
And that growing sense of fear among the population for ‘the enemy’ suits Putin well: it gives him more leeway to continue his ‘military operation’ and perhaps to scale it up even further.
- One Year of ‘Special Military Operation’: How the Russian Narrative Changed
- Russia: ‘Ukraine attacked air bases with drones, three killed’