Fresh From Attack on Russian Soil, Raiders Taunt the Kremlin

Fresh from leading a military incursion into Russian territory, commanders of anti-Kremlin armed groups on Wednesday taunted the Russian Army for its slow response and threatened Moscow with more raids to come.

Russia, they told reporters at a news conference in a forest clearing in northern Ukraine near the border, should now understand that any section of the long frontier may become a new place that Moscow will be compelled to defend.

Military analysts suggested that the cross-border attack in the region of Belgorod on Monday and Tuesday had twin goals, military and political.

It appeared aimed at forcing Russia to divert badly needed troops from the front in eastern and southern Ukraine, even as Ukraine prepares a counteroffensive. And it threatened to embarrass President Vladimir V. Putin’s government by showing Russia’s vulnerability.

The raid prompted a warning from the leader of Russia’s largest mercenary force, who said his country faced further military setbacks unless its ruling elite took drastic — and most likely unpopular — measures to win the war. The Kremlin, said Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner group, needs to order a new wave of military mobilization, declare martial law and force “everyone possible” into ammunition production.

“We must stop building new roads and infrastructure facilities and work only for the war, to live for a few years in the image of North Korea,” Mr. Prigozhin said.

The consequences otherwise, he said, might prove dire for a Russian elite he described as profoundly estranged from the citizenry. “Society always demands justice,” he said, “and if there is no justice, then revolutionary sentiments arise.”

Some pro-war Russian voices openly expressed fear that the attacks in Belgorod would create new battlefield challenges for Russia, whose only significant military victory in the past nine months came in the past few days, when it claimed control of the ruins of the city of Bakhmut after a long, costly battle.

Igor Girkin, a military blogger and former Russian paramilitary commander in Ukraine, warned of “the inevitable creation of a continuous front along this border, which will have to be filled from somewhere with combined arms units and formations of the Russian Armed Forces, is on the agenda.”

That can only help the Ukrainian military, said Mr. Girkin, who goes by Igor Strelkov.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that the attackers, who are members of two groups calling themselves the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, had been pushed back across the border into Ukraine. But the attacks in Belgorod continued overnight, with a “large number” of drone strikes and damage to a gas pipeline that caused a small fire, the regional governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said Wednesday morning.

“The night was not entirely calm,” Mr. Gladkov wrote on Telegram, saying that houses, cars and office buildings in the city of Belgorod and other settlements had been damaged.

It was unclear how the aftermath of the raid might play out in Russia.

Analysts of Russian politics said that the attack might stir discontent over incompetence in the military among pro-war groups, but that it could also offer Mr. Putin an opportunity to try to rally people around the flag. Already, the Kremlin has said that the raiders had abandoned American-made military vehicles inside Russia, and Moscow can use the far-right histories of some of the raiders to bolster its largely false claim to be fighting Nazis in Ukraine.

The Kremlin, eager to discredit the renegade Russians, dismissed them on Wednesday as neo-fascists.

One commander of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Denis Kapustin, is a known far-right extremist. The Anti-Defamation League has said that he was involved in the Mixed Martial Arts world in Europe and that he has trained younger members of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany. At the news conference in northern Ukraine on Wednesday, he introduced himself to reporters by his call sign, White Rex.

Asked about his ultranationalist ideology he described himself as right wing and said that his views were “traditionalist” and “patriotic.”

Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s minister of defense, called the cross-border attack a terrorist act. “In response to similar action by Ukrainian fighters, we will respond in an operational manner and very harshly,” he told a gathering of security officials in Moscow, Russian media reported.

Ukrainian officials denied having directed the assault, and said only Russian citizens had crossed the border.

The raiders, a motley group of Russian exiles who have been fighting on the Ukrainian side in the war, said much the same when they met with reporters in the forest, in a region of northern Ukraine wrested back from Russian occupiers last spring.

The Ukrainian military, Mr. Kapustin said, had “wished us good luck” but did not cross into Russia.

But the fighters made clear that they were consulting with the Ukrainians.

“Everything we do within the state borders of Ukraine we obviously coordinate with the Ukrainian military,” Mr. Kapustin said. “Everything we do, every decision we make, beyond the state border, is our decision.”

The fighters were buoyant. Commanders and soldiers, some with camouflage buffs pulled over their faces, stood toting machine guns before an armored personnel carrier they said they had captured and driven out of Russia.

They mocked the Russian response to the raid.

“The reaction was slow, panicked, disorganized, and didn’t begin for hours,” said a commander who asked to be identified by his nickname, Cesar.

The news conference in the forest was intended as a victory lap of sorts, but the fighters kept a strict time limit on the gathering, lest it be targeted by a Russian missile. After about 40 minutes, the soldiers drove away in pickup trucks and, with a rumble of a diesel engine, what they said was the captured Russian personnel carrier.

Evelina Riabenko and Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.

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