May 20, 2024

Russia was hit by a wave of attacks Tuesday, with Ukrainian drones striking targets deep inside the country from the air while anti-Kremlin armed groups said they had staged a cross-border incursion on the ground.

The attacks were the latest sign of Kyiv’s growing ability and determination to take the fight to its neighbor’s territory, and came just days ahead of a presidential election that will see Vladimir Putin re-assert his rule.

The Kremlin, which has worked hard to burnish an image of domestic calm despite the war in Ukraine, said it had successfully fought off the attempted incursions. But it was impossible to verify either side’s claims, and attacks like this could unnerve the Russian public ahead of the election.

The Russian defense ministry reported early Tuesday that 25 drones had been intercepted over at least seven regions, in one of Ukraine’s most wide-ranging aerial attacks in recent months.

The ministry did not report on any damage or casualties, only saying the drones had been destroyed. But some local governors reported that fuel and energy facilities had been hit, including an oil refinery that was ablaze in the Nizhny Novgorod region, some 480 miles from the Ukraine border.

The ministry separately reported that it destroyed eight rockets and one Tochka-U missile over Belgorod region, which has been routinely shelled by Ukraine since the early months of the war.

Ukraine normally does not take responsibility for attacks on Russian soil, but has increasingly targeted energy facilities in recent months with drones that can strike deep behind Russian lines.

Incursions into Russia?

Meanwhile, a trio of Ukraine-based armed groups purporting to be Russian volunteers opposed to the Kremlin said they had staged overnight raids across the border.

The groups released videos on the Telegram messaging app claiming to show their fighters inside Russia, with some moving on what appear to be tanks. NBC News could not verify those videos.

The Freedom of Russia Legion claimed to have crossed Russia’s western border near the village of Tetkino in the Kursk region and said it had hit an armored personnel carrier in the village.

The group released a video statement early Tuesday in which it criticized Putin’s hold on power and said it was fighting to free the Russian people from “misery, poverty and fear.”

The Russian Volunteer Corps, which staged a dramatic cross-border incursion alongside the Legion last May, also said that it had again crossed into Russia, without elaborating on exactly where. It released a video of its fighters in an undisclosed location, shooting in the dark.

The group’s leader and some members have endorsed neo-Nazi ideologies.

Another military group that calls itself the Siberian Battalion also claimed to have crossed the border Tuesday.

“We said earlier that it would not be possible to overthrow the criminal dictatorial regime in the Russian Federation peacefully. It can only be eliminated with weapons in hand,” it said in a post on Telegram. “Tonight we began to fulfill the promise.” It later shared a video claiming to show its fighters in Russia and calling on the country’s citizens to vote with weapons, not ballots.

NBC News could not independently verify any of the groups’ claims.

Kursk region governor Roman Starovoit said Tuesday that there was an attempt at an incursion by a sabotage group, which resulted in a shootout, but there was no “breakthrough.” He said the village of Tetkino had been shelled from the Ukrainian side since the morning.

There was no confirmation of an incursion from Belgorod’s governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.

Russia’s defense ministry said that its armed forces and border units of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) had “thwarted an attempt by the Kyiv regime to break into the Russian border territory in the Belgorod and Kursk regions.”

The early morning attacks were repelled, the ministry said, and there were no violations of the state border. Up to 60 “Ukrainian terrorists” and five tanks were destroyed in the fighting, it added.

Near the village of Tetkino in the Kursk region, it said four attacks by “Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance groups” were repelled.

“Having suffered significant losses, the enemy was driven back,” the ministry said.

Moscow has consistently framed the groups as acting on the orders of the Ukrainian military, while Kyiv has said they are acting of their own accord.

Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s military intelligence, said Tuesday that the groups are made up of Russian citizens and act on Russian territory independently of Ukraine. “We are probably talking about a joint operation of these units, in particular in Belgorod and Kursk regions,” Yusov told Radio Freedom, commenting on the reports of the raids.

Russia heads to the polls on Friday for a three-day vote, which is all but guaranteed to see Putin come out victorious on a ballot with no real opposition. The Kremlin has tried to project an image of national unity and stability ahead of the election, but Tuesday’s attacks could become an unwelcome distraction.

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