Russian rebels aim to embarrass Putin with cross-border attacks during presidential election

  • Paramilitary groups made up of anti-Putin dissidents have launched incursions into southern Russia.

  • The fighters say they intend to disrupt Russia's election and demonstrate opposition to Putin.

  • Putin said there would be payback for the attacks in a speech to Security Council of Russia on Friday.

Several pro-Ukrainian paramilitary groups made up of Russian rebel fighters have launched incursions into southern Russia this week, ahead of the election that is widely seen as a sham to reelect Vladimir Putin.

The Freedom for Russia Legion, which consists of Russian dissidents, said it was carrying out operations into Russia's Kursk and Belgorod regions — the largest cross-border attacks since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

Two other groups — the Siberian Battalion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) — also said they were involved in the assaults.

Aleksey Baranovsky, who is part of the Freedom for Russia Legion, said the group's goal was to disrupt the election and show opposition to Putin.

"We are sending a message to those inside Russia, who are demoralized and lost since [Alexey] Navalny's murder, that we are still here, willing to fight the regime," he said, per The Telegraph.

He said that they also wanted to show Western governments that "the election is not legal and that, of course Putin will win, but he is not a legitimate leader."

Putin acknowledged the attacks in a speech to the Security Council of Russia on Friday and said they aimed to "disrupt the voting process and intimidate people."

He blamed Ukraine for the assaults, and vowed: "These enemy strikes will not remain unpunished."

He said that the attackers consisted of 2,500 troops, 35 tanks, and about 40 armored vehicles.

Jade McGlynn, a research fellow in the War Studies Department at King's College London, told Business Insider that the rebels play an important role in maintaining a visible face of Russia's opposition, which the Kremlin has largely oppressed.

The main opposition voice, Alexey Navalny, died in a Russian penal colony this month, which many Western leaders have blamed on Putin.

Voting is taking place in Russia over three days until Sunday. The election result is not in doubt as there is no viable opponent to Putin, and it is widely regarded as a rubber stamp exercise.

It will be Putin's fifth term as president. He has been in the role for 24 years, apart from 2008-12, when he was prime minister.

He generated controversy in 2021 when he signed into law a change to the country's constitution that would allow him to run for two more six-year terms.

'We are coming to liberate you'

A journalist wearing a flak jacket works at a polling station during Russia's presidential election in Belgorod on March 15, 2024.
A journalist wearing a flak jacket works at a polling station during Russia's presidential election in Belgorod on March 15, 2024.STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

The rebel groups seeking to disrupt the electoral coronation of Putin operate in close cooperation with Ukraine's military.

Ukrainian drone strikes and shelling accompanied the skirmishes, CNN reported, with local officials saying that at least two people have been killed and more injured.

Videos circulating on social media appear to show a road in the city of Belgorod, a regional capital with a population of over 300,000, strewn with burning and overturned cars and explosions ringing out. A polling station in Belgorod also appeared to be rocked by explosions, with locals ducking for cover while casting their votes.

BI could not independently verify the videos.

The three resistance groups released a joint statement on March 15 calling on residents of Belgorod and Kursk to remain in shelters and said there would be a humanitarian corridor facilitated overnight to allow residents to leave.

"We are not coming to kill, erase, destroy, or to punish. We are coming to liberate you from poverty, misery, and fear. To liberate you from the dictatorship of a terrorist organization that seized power," one fighter from the Freedom for Russia Legion said in a video.

Russian authorities have also acknowledged the attacks.

On Thursday, the Russian National Guard said it was involved in repelling an attack on the village of Tyotkino in Kursk.

Russia's defense ministry also told state-owned media outlet Tass on Tuesday that they had repelled attacks in Belgorod, in which the attackers were equipped with tanks and armored vehicles.

McGlynn, who met with leaders of Russia's Freedom Legion in Kyiv in December, said that the group comprises a wide range of Russian citizens.

"In terms of political views, there are liberals, nationalists, guys who went to rallies for Navalny, and also some who are just absolutely apolitical," she said.

"They see their fight as not against Russia but against the dictatorship of Putin and his entourage who are wrecking Russia's future."

A view of the site after Ukrainian shelling that damaged buildings and vehicles in Belgorod, Russia on March 14, 2024.
A view of the site after Ukrainian shelling that damaged buildings and vehicles in Belgorod, Russia on March 14, 2024.Emil Leegunov/Anadolu via Getty Images

It is unlikely that these attacks will have a major impact on the election or the war in Ukraine, but they could serve to embarrass Putin.

Their actions also serve to remind Russians of the impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

"We know that Russians are less likely to support the war when they feel the effects coming home," McGlynn said.

McGlynn said it was also likely demoralizing if Russian soldiers who are already in their third year into the war in Ukraine were transferred to southern Russia to repel the attacks.

Read the original article on Business Insider