(CNN) — An apparent attack on Russian soil by anti-Putin Russians fighting in support of Ukraine has sparked confusion and anger in Moscow.
Residents of the attacked settlements in Russia’s Belgorod region have been resettled to other areas as authorities continue to “clear the territory” following the cross-border raid launched from Ukraine, authorities said Tuesday.
One civilian was killed as a result of the fighting, according to the regional governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov.
However, questions remain about who was responsible for the attack, how it took place and what implications it has for the war.
This is what you need to know.
What happened in Belgorod?
The two anti-Putin groups of Russian citizens, fighting in Ukraine as part of the Kyiv defense forces, the Freedom for Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, claimed responsibility for the attack in the Belgorod region in Southwestern Russia, bordering Northeastern Ukraine.
“Residential and administrative buildings and civilian infrastructure came under mortar and artillery fire. As a result of these criminal actions, several civilians were injured,” Russia’s Investigative commission said on Telegram announcing an investigation into the attack.
Two areas of the region were then attacked overnight by unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), Gladkov said, causing two houses to catch fire.
It appears to be the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine that Kyiv-aligned forces have launched a cross-border ground operation against Russian targets.
Aleksey Baranovsky, a representative of the Kyiv-based Russian Armed Opposition Political Center — the political wing of the Freedom for Russia Legion — told CNN that the operation had begun Sunday night and that fighting was “continuing.”
He did not specify the number of fighters who had crossed the border into Russia. Baranovsky said the group wanted to “liberate our homeland from Putin’s tyranny.”
At first, Gladkov said that no one was killed, but later on Tuesday he said: “Unfortunately, we have losses. A civilian from the village of Kozinka was killed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry told a daily briefing on Tuesday that its forces repelled the attackers back into Ukrainian territory using airstrikes, artillery fire and military units. He also added: “The remnants of the nationalists were expelled to the territory of Ukraine, where they continued to be hit by fire until they were completely eliminated.”
What groups are involved?
The Freedom for Russia Legion said on Telegram early Tuesday that it and another group, the Russian Volunteer Corps, “continue to liberate the Belgorod region.” The publication described the groups as “patriotic volunteers” and claimed that Russia was vulnerable to attack, as “Russia has no reserves to respond to military crises. All military personnel are dead, wounded or in Ukraine.”
As one of his fighters, who wears the badge “Caesar,” says in a video statement he recorded with his comrades before joining a cross-border raid on his homeland: “Russia will be free.”
CNN’s Sam Kiley interviewed that same fighter in December, as the group was fighting for Ukraine against Russian attacks on the frontline town of Bakhmut.
“From the first day of the war, my heart, the heart of a true Russian, a true Christian, told me that I had to be here to defend the people of Ukraine,” Cesar said. CNN agreed not to release his name to protect his identity.
“It was a very difficult process,” Cesar said of joining the Ukraine effort. “It took me several months to finally join the ranks of the defenders of Ukraine.”
Now with his family in Ukraine — where he believes they are safer — Caesar said he was one of about 200 Russian citizens currently fighting alongside Ukrainian troops against their own country’s armies. CNN has not been able to independently confirm this number.
How is the incident interpreted in Russia?
When Russian authorities condemned the attack, analysts noted widespread confusion in the Russian news space about how the attack was allowed to take place and how Moscow should respond.
Russian bloggers and pundits reacted with “a degree of panic, factionalism and incoherence, as often happens when they experience major information clashes,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank wrote in its daily briefing on the conflict. .
“The attack took Russian commentators by surprise,” the ISW assessed.
This has the potential to be embarrassing for President Vladimir Putin, who for 15 months has been leading an invasion that he baselessly claimed was necessary to keep Russia safe. With limited performance on the battlefield, Putin may now face discontent that the war is disrupting life in his country.
Earlier this month, the Kremlin published an incident in which two drones flew over the Kremlin. It is still unclear who was responsible—Moscow blamed Ukraine for what it called an attack on Putin’s life; Ukraine and the United States denied any involvement—but Putin’s internal critics might frame the dramatic video as a visual example of Moscow’s war unraveling.
In another incident on Monday night, the Freedom for Russia Legion posted a video on Telegram that appears to show the so-called blue and white flag of Free Russia waving over Moscow State University.
Other videos released by the group also appear to show another Russian opposition flag flying over various areas of the Russian capital.
The group did not claim direct responsibility for the incidents, and CNN was unable to independently verify the reports.
What does Kyiv say?
As has often happened in the aftermath of alleged violence on Russian soil since Moscow invaded Ukraine, the incident has prompted widely differing accounts between the Kremlin and Kyiv.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the instigators as “Ukrainian militants from Ukraine” on Tuesday, despite the fact that the group claiming responsibility is made up of Russian citizens. Peskov had previously said that Kremlin forces were working to oust a “sabotage and reconnaissance group,” according to state media TASS.
A Ukrainian official acknowledged that the units had carried out an operation in the area, but insisted that they were acting independently.
“We can confirm that this operation was carried out by Russian citizens,” Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, told CNN.
Yusov said the units were “part of the defense and security forces” when they were in Ukraine, but were independent of Kyiv when they were not: “In Russia they act as independent entities.”
What will this mean for the war?
The attacks are unlikely to spark a momentum shift in the broader war in Ukraine, which has largely focused on Ukraine’s eastern regions and has seen few territories change hands for several months. The conflict is virtually at a stalemate and is most likely to be affected by Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive against Russian forces, which may already be underway.
However, like previous flashpoints far from the front lines, it has the potential to shape the narrative surrounding the conflict in both Russia and Ukraine.
Moscow has always been keen to present an image of Russian victimhood as a pretext for intensifying attacks on Ukraine, given its public claim that the invasion is an act of self-defense and necessary to keep Russia safe. Putin will no doubt try to use these attacks to bolster that narrative, even though Kyiv denies any official involvement.
A short-term display of anger is also possible. Following previous incidents that have embarrassed Russia — such as the shady drone incident over the Kremlin this month and the attack on the bridge connecting Russia to occupied Crimea in October — Moscow responded with a barrage of missile attacks across Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv.
Putin is likely to want to focus Russia’s attention on incidents off the front lines, where his forces are striving to deal a heavy blow to Ukrainian defenses, as evidenced by costly and months-long efforts to capture the relatively insignificant city of Bakhmut.
— CNN’s Victoria Butenko, Anna Chernova, Sam Kiley, Vasco Cotovio, Peter Rudden and Olha Konovalova contributed to this report.