Moscow says Ukrainian saboteurs opened fire on civilians on Russian soil, a claim Kiev denies.
President Vladimir Putin has said Russia has been hit by a “terrorist attack” in the southern Bryansk region, bordering Ukraine, and has vowed to destroy what he believes was a Ukrainian sabotage group that had fired on civilians.
Moscow said the Ukrainians crossed the border, shot at a car that killed a person and injured a child, and held hostages in a store.
Ukraine accused Russia of staging a false “provocation”, but also appeared to suggest that some form of operation had indeed been carried out by Russian anti-government partisans.
Senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Mykhailo Podolyak, said on Twitter: “The story about (the) Ukrainian sabotage group in RF (Russian Federation) is a classic deliberate provocation.”
He said Russia “should fear your partisans”. A day earlier, following apparent drone strike attempts against Russia, which Moscow blamed Ukraine, Podolyak had responded in a similar manner, suggesting attempts in domestic violence.
The story about 🇺🇦 sabotage group in RF is a classic deliberate provocation. RF wants to scare its people to justify the attack on another country and the growing poverty after the war year. The partisan movement in RF is getting stronger and more aggressive. Fear your partisans…
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) March 2, 2023
Amid reports of shelling and sporadic sabotage, Russia’s border regions have become increasingly unstable since Moscow invaded Ukraine a year ago in what it called a “special military operation.”
Putin said in a televised speech: “They will not achieve anything. We will crush them”.
The group was made up of the kind of people who wanted to rob Russia of its history and language, he said.
The RIA news agency quoted Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) as saying the situation was under the control of law enforcement agencies. It said a large number of explosives had been found and mines were being cleared.
In two videos circulating online, gunmen calling themselves the “Russian Volunteer Corps” said they had crossed the border to fight what they called “the bloody regime of Putinites and the Kremlin”.
The men described themselves as Russian “liberators” and called on the Russians to take up arms and revolt against the authorities. They said they weren’t shooting at civilians.
Al Jazeera was unable to immediately verify the authenticity of the videos.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Putin was briefed by security chiefs.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst, told Al Jazeera: “It seems like a rather strange story at the moment; the Ukrainians say they are not, and the Russians say they are.”
Despite the incident, he said, it is currently not significant enough for Russia to launch a new offensive or be used in a “pretextual situation”.
“There have been reports of Ukrainian spies and agents being arrested and armed in various places, so this is not that unusual, so to speak,” Felgenhauer said.
“This is not some kind of Ukrainian invasion with tanks or anything; this is apparently a report from a group of armed men.”