Hello! This week we focus on one story: an unusually high number of apparent Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory — and what they might mean.
What do Ukrainian drone attacks and cross-border raids and an ‘assassination attempt’ have in common?
At least four different Russian regions, including Moscow Region, were attacked by Ukrainian drones last week. In addition, an armed band — apparently with neo-Nazi links — crossed the border into Russia from Ukraine, allegedly killing two civilians, and the Russian security services claimed Monday to have foiled an assassination attempt on a prominent Russian businessman with extreme nationalist views.
A flurry of drone attacks
- In the early hours of Tuesday, what appeared to be Ukrainian drones attacked at least four Russian regions. Two successfully struck an oil terminal in Tuapse in the Krasnodar Region; three or four fell in the suburbs of Belgorod (most likely failing to reach their target); and another one was found at a village in the Adygei republic (at least 400 kilometers from Ukraine). A final drone was recovered near a gas compressor in the village of Gubastovo in Moscow Region.
- The same day, airspace around Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg was closed for about an hour without warning. The Russian authorities even scrambled fighter jets. The usually well-informed Petersburg media outlet Fontanka claimed an unidentified flying object was spotted about 180 kilometers from the city. Later, the Defense Ministry claimed that it was an air defense training drill.
- Finally, late on Thursday evening something exploded in the Moscow region near where the drone had crashed two days previously. A source told the state-run TASS news agency that the explosion was in the air and might have been another drone.
- A final incident on Belarus’s Machulishhi airfield on Feb. 26 is also noteworthy. A civilian drone, apparently launched from inside Belarus, managed to damage a Russian A-50 spy plane (equivalent to the American AVACS). It isn’t clear how much damage was caused, but the plane reportedly had to fly to Russia for repairs.
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- While Russia has been getting used to drone attacks, a ground attack from over the Ukrainian border last week was a first in this war — and sparked real panic.
- The attack took place on Thursday morning. At first, it seemed reminiscent of Russian false flag operations on the eve of the war. At 11:30 a.m. the governor of the Bryansk Region, which borders Ukraine, reported an attack — and wild rumors began to swirl: Telegram channels claimed a group of 50 to 100 saboteurs descended on a border village, shot up a school bus, blew up electricity and gas stations and took the entire village hostage, killing a schoolgirl. State-run news agencies cited sources that actively encouraged the rising fears.
- Within a few hours, however, it became clear that this was a far smaller-scale incident affecting just two villages — Lyubechane and Sushany. The school bus turned out to be a private car in which three children were passengers. The driver of that Niva and another man were reportedly killed, and a 10-year-old boy was injured. Only one person was taken hostage (according to claims from anonymous local residents) and was later released. Nonetheless, the attack was real. This is confirmed not only by footage recorded in the villages by the “Russian Volunteer Corps”, which claimed responsibility for the attack, but also by eye-witness accounts from local residents who spoke with opposition media outlets.
- In the evening, the Federal Security Service (FSB) reported that “Ukrainian nationalists were forced back to the territory of Ukraine and subjected to artillery fire.” Putin commented on the raid, but only briefly: he called the attackers terrorists.
- The Russian Volunteer Corps, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, is little known — except to experts. The group was set up by a 38-year-old Russian neo-Nazi and football hooligan, Denis Nikitin, who moved to Ukraine in 2017. In an interview with the Financial Times, Nikitin said that 45 people took part in the raid last week, some of them members of a “guerrilla network” based in Russia, and that the attack was coordinated with the Ukrainian military.
- Last year, Nikitin said he reached out to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in an effort to get his unit permission to officially “join the fight” and was “given the go-ahead.” The Ukrainian authorities deny any involvement in the corps’ activities. In itself, Russian neo-Nazis fighting on the Ukrainian side is nothing new: a significant number of ultra-right wingers fight on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides.
An assassination attempt on Russia’s ‘orthodox oligarch’
- Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed Monday it had thwarted a terrorist attack against sanctioned businessman Konstantin Malofeyev. The attack was organized — according to the FSB — by the same Russian Volunteer Corps that attacked the Bryansk region. A controversial figure, Malofeyev owns the ultra-patriotic Tsargrad TV station and was sanctioned by Western countries in 2014 for financing Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
- The FSB published a video that allegedly showed the moment the bomb was placed under Malofeyev’s vehicle. In the footage a person stands next to Malofeyev’s Mercedes, which is parked outside, before abruptly leaning down to place something under the chassis and then fleeing the scene. Another video showed how the vehicle was made safe, although — for some reason — the second clip was filmed in an underground parking garage.
- According to the FSB, Ukrainian intelligence ordered the attempt on Malofeyev’s life and the attack was carried out by “the founder of the so-called Russian Volunteer Corps, Russian citizen Denis Kapustin.” Kapustin is the pseudonym of Nikitin.
- Malofeyev is one of the most controversial figures in Russian business. In the early 2000s he worked with major Russian investment banks before setting up Marshall Capital Partners in 2005. At first, Malofeyev bought assets on the baby food market and combined them into Russia’s largest manufacturer, Nutritek. That project ended in a criminal case over embezzlement. Then, the businessman, who was seen as a protégé of presidential aide and former communications minister Igor Shchegolev, acquired a large amount of shares in state-owned communications giant Rostelecom. Another criminal case arose out of Malofeyev’s activities with Rostelecom.
- However, every case against Malofeyev was closed in 2014 after he played an active role in the annexation of Crimea and fueling the war in eastern Ukraine. Among other things, Malofeyev’s employees included Igor Strelkov, who led armed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and Alexander Borodai, the first prime minister of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk.
- Malofeyev owns the ultra-patriotic Tsargrad TV channel, which broadcasts shows by nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin. Dugin’s daughter was blown up in her car last summer. In its statement Monday, the FSB drew attention to the fact that the assassination attempt “followed the same plan used to kill Daria Dugina.” Putin also mentioned Dugina’s death Thursday when he commented on attacks on the Bryansk region. Observers spotted that the piece of paper from which Putin read his speech that day had a handwritten note that read: “Daria Alexandrovna Dugina.”
- While announcing the Malofeyev attack, the FSB also accused the Russian Volunteer Corps of preparing another failed attack – an attempt to damage energy infrastructure in the Volgograd region in August. The FSB reported on that incident in the immediate aftermath — but at the time it described the perpetrators (who were killed during their arrest) as “Russians from the radical right-wing group Restrukt.”
Why does this look odd?
- In contrast with the alleged assassination attempt on Malofeyev — which seems fanciful — the attack on villages in Bryansk region wasn’t invented. Nor is it a false flag operation in the strictest sense. Soldiers clearly crossed the Ukrainian border to attack Russian villages and then retreated. Yet the story does not quite add up.
- Russia’s failures in this war have already taught us not to be surprised at anything. But an incident in which dozens of men cross the border between two warring countries, attack two villages, take someone hostage and then cross back again without suffering any losses is a flagrant failure of Russia’s border guards and security infrastructure. Unless, of course, it was a provocation staged by Russia’s own forces. After all, there have always been plenty of FSB agents planted within Russian neo-Nazi organizations. Either way, there are many unanswered questions.
Why the world should care
- If we dismiss lurid conspiracy theories, all three incidents – the drone attacks in Russia, the so-called neo-Nazi raids and the assassination attempt – have at least two things in common.
- Firstly, they all amount to significant failures on behalf of Russia’s military and security establishment. This proves that, even after a year of war, it is not hard to find vulnerabilities in Russia’s Armed Forces.
- In terms of consequences, it doesn’t really matter whether the attack in Bryansk was a false flag incident or not. Nor is it important why Russia’s air defenses cannot prevent drones from striking in the heart of Russian territory. What matters is that all of this plays into the hands of the pro-war lobby, which sees a rise in military alarmism across the country as a way to further “tighten the screws” and reinforce a narrative that Russia is engaged in a fight for its very existence.