At the start of this week an unknown number of paramilitaries entered the Russian region of Belgorod from Ukraine.
The details are both unclear and contested, but what appears to have happened is essentially this: they took over a border post, attacked a few villages on the Russian side of the border north of Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, and advanced several dozen kilometres further into Russia before being beaten back by Russian troops. Russia claims it killed 70, but there is no corroboration.
Ukraine says it was a couple of Russian volunteer groups opposed to President Putin, operating independently of the Kyiv government; Russia says it was Ukrainian saboteurs and terrorists operating with the full knowledge and support of Kyiv. But whoever was behind this raid is a secondary detail to the fact that it happened.
There have been several attempted cross-border incursions in recent months, but this appears to have been the biggest, best organised and longest lasting. Verified pictures also showed the group had been using US-made vehicles, such as Humvees, suggesting either a diversion or an authorised use of military aid.
Brief and apparently thwarted though it was, the raid adds to evidence that the war in Ukraine has started to spread into Russia proper. There have been drone attacks into border areas, targeting munitions dumps and other facilities. There have been a spate of reported derailments, including of long-distance freight trains, in Bryansk and other regions close to Ukraine.
There have been three political assassinations, or attempted assassinations, starting with the death in a car-bombing of Darya Dugina in August, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist ideologue; continuing with the St Petersburg based blogger who wrote as Vladlen Tatarsky, killed by a bomb concealed inside a statuette; and earlier this month the apparent attempt on the life of another nationalist writer, Zakhar Prilepin, in a car-bomb that killed his passenger and left Prilepin with serious injuries.
And then there were those drones shot down approaching the Kremlin – an operation that Western officials initially dubbed a false-flag operation by Russia, but which is now increasingly thought to have been masterminded by Ukrainian special forces, as the Russians had claimed. The change in official Western thinking was acknowledged in just the past few days in a report in the New York Times.
You might also add, as an early example of an attack inside Russia, the lorry bomb last October that damaged the Kerch Bridge, linking mainland Russia to Crimea.
All these incidents have features in common: they are untoward events of which Russia before the war experienced very few. Russia has blamed them all on Ukraine. President Zelensky and the Kyiv government have denied all responsibility, and Western officials generally have taken Kyiv’s side, before later concluding that, yes, there might well have been Ukrainian involvement, but the culprits were probably independent – or rogue – operatives, or maybe just special forces or Ukraine’s civilian or military intelligence services. Even if the attack had a Ukrainian component, the line went, it was nothing to do with Zelensky or Kyiv.
And there was good reason for this. Not only is deniability “best practice” as it were in such circumstances, but the United States in particular has shown concern about the risks of hostilities spreading into Russia. As it has delivered more sophisticated weapons, Washington has insisted that they not be used to attack Russia – and until recently limited their range accordingly.
The US reportedly reprimanded Kyiv over the Dugina assassination, after the CIA established a Ukraine secret service connection. It also publicised a warning it had given to Kyiv about a plan by Ukraine to fly drones to the Kremlin on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion. Ukraine heeded that warning, but appears to have tried it anyway, on a perhaps less sensitive date.
There remains considerable uncertainty – doubtless deliberate uncertainty – about how far any of these operations have been authorised by the Zelensky government and how far Ukraine’s intelligence services might be operating on their own.
In the end, perhaps it hardly matters. The risks are the same, and they are risks to all sides, including to Ukraine.
If Ukraine is flouting conditions set on the Western supplies it is receiving, it risks those deliveries slowing or being restricted. It could also give Russia a pretext for extending its air attacks further into Ukraine. Until now, with the exception of some clearly punitive raids (in response to the Kerch bridge attack or the Kremlin drones, for instance), the thrust of Russian attacks have been to the east of the river Dnieper.
That could change if border incursions or attacks inside Russia become more frequent. Russia could also decide to attack Western supply lines which so far, for the most part, it has declined to do. Whether Russia has the capacity to do more than it is currently doing may be in question, but it has a habit of finding the resources when it really needs them.
It is worth noting that overt criticism of Putin from inside Russia has come from those who think that Russia’s war effort has been incompetent, and that he is not prosecuting the war harshly enough. The time that it took for Russian forces to repel the latest border incursion will have done little to reassure this constituency, even if as many as 70 raiders were indeed killed. Attacks inside Russia will thus come with a price.
Were there to be a more serious border incursion, that could be cast as an invasion, and then all bets would be off. As they would if, say, Ukrainian special forces were to assassinate Putin. Both Russia and Ukraine have said they will not target the other’s leader, and I am not one of those – at the moment – contemplating Russia resorting to nuclear weapons. But extreme actions, by accident or design, cannot be ruled out.
Russia has so far steered clear of extending its attacks beyond Ukraine – and the US quickly defused an incident where Ukraine (erroneously) blamed Russia for firing a missile that landed inside Poland. But if Russia did venture an attack on a Nato country, the pressure would be hard to resist for an Article 5 response, and the Nato-Russia proxy war we have at present suddenly loses the proxy element and becomes real.
It has to be hoped that there are informed people in high places, in London and Brussels, in Warsaw and above all in Washington who are working on this and considering scenarios they might once have dismissed.
For my part, I would also hope their conclusions are not that Russia is so weak that the risk of a wider war is worth taking, but rather that any spread of the war could have such dire consequences for the rest of Europe that they must be avoided at all costs.