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Russian defectors planning "surprise" after forays across border

Two groups of Russian fighters serving with the Ukrainian Armed Forces are planning an operation that will “surprise” Moscow, months after they crossed into Russia’s Belgorod region and claimed to seize a village, according to a Ukrainian intelligence official.

The Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) and the Freedom of Russia Legion have disappeared from the media because they are “preparing for extensive operations” that aim to strike critical targets inside Russia, Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine’s defense Intelligence agency (GUR), told Ukrainian publication Ukrainska Pravda in an interview published Wednesday.

Russian fighters serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces crossed from Ukraine into Russia’s Belgorod region in late May. Days later, in early June, Russian soldiers fighting the anti-Moscow militia complained that “entire regiments” were being wiped out, while Newsweek was told that the fighters had captured some of Russia’s “trophy” equipment.

The Freedom of Russia Legion was formed weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, and is made up of defectors from the Russian armed forces and Russian and Belarusian volunteers. The RVC says its members include Russians fighting on Ukraine’s side and against the Kremlin regime.

Ilya Ponomarev, an exiled Russian politician who says he is the political representative for the Freedom of Russia Legion, told Newsweek in June that the group, alongside the RVC, had crossed into the border town of Shebekino in Belgorod oblast.

He said the groups aim “to liberate Russia from Putinism” and that they had “liberated” the villages of Kozinka and Graivoron in the same region. Kozinka lies directly along the Ukraine-Russia border, with Graivoron just a mile further into Moscow’s territory.

Speaking on the latest developments on Thursday, Ponomarev confirmed to Newsweek that the RVC and the Legion are planning separate operations.

“It is not a joint thing—RVC is planning one thing, and the Legion is [planning] something different.”

GUR official Skibitskyi said on Wednesday that the RVC and the Legion are currently preparing for further operations.

“When they entered [Belgorod in May and June], Russia was not ready and did not realize what was happening at the time,” said Skibitskyi. “But since then, Russia has significantly increased its presence in the border area near us.

“Secondly, there is the equipment of the territories in terms of engineering, the strengthening of air defense, the strengthening of intelligence systems, and other things designed to prevent the activities of such groups.

“Accordingly, planning is difficult now, but actions are being planned,” Skibitskyi added. “They are being carried out using not only manpower, but also other assets and resources in order to strike the most critical targets on the territory of the Russian Federation.”

Newsweek has contacted Russia’s Foreign Ministry via email for comment.

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