A reconnaissance group claiming to work for the Ukrainian military crossed into Russia and allegedly launched an attack on Thursday, prompting President Vladimir Putin to convene his security council and delay a planned trip out of Moscow.
Russian authorities said on Thursday that the group had entered a village in Bryansk region near Russia’s border with Ukraine and shot two civilians but did not provide evidence of an attack.
In a planned address on Thursday, Putin claimed that a “terrorist attack has been committed today”.
“They infiltrated the territory close to the border and opened fire at civilians,” he said. “They saw the car [they have attacked] was civilian, they saw the kids inside — but they opened fire.”
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the move was “a classic provocation” from Russia.
But a Ukraine-based group of Russian nationals calling itself the Russian Volunteer Corps posted a video on its Telegram channel showing two men carrying assault rifles, dressed in white winter camouflage and holding a flag adorned with the group’s symbol — a sword and shield.
One of the men says: “Friends, this has happened . . . We have crossed the state border. We are not fighting the civilians, we do not kill unarmed people. It is time for the Russian citizens to understand that they are not slaves. Fight!”
In the Telegram post, the group, which was founded in August, said it “came to Bryansk region to show their compatriots that there is hope, that free Russian people with weapons in their hands can fight the regime”.
One of the men in the video is Denis Nikitin, 38, who is the head of the corps. Nikitin — a prominent far-right, Russia-born football hooligan and mixed martial arts fighter — founded the white nationalist clothing label White Rex.
Nikitin, a polyglot who sometimes also uses the surname Kapustin, was born in Moscow, studied in Europe and lived for years in Germany before moving to Ukraine in 2017. He has garnered a large following among rightwing nationalists across the west, including the US.
His group claims to be a “Russian volunteer formation that is part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”. Ukraine’s military has not confirmed that connection.
Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson at Ukraine’s military intelligence, told the Financial Times the incident on Thursday was “an internal Russian stand-off”. He said the armed Russian men were an “independent formation” fighting to liberate their country and “were not” trained or part of Ukraine’s armed forces.
Groups from Ukraine have breached Russia’s border and entered Bryansk region in the past. A Ukrainian sabotage team of four men was found with weapons and explosives were killed in December.
But Ukraine’s armed forces have recently claimed that Russia was preparing “provocations” in the border area where the incident on Thursday allegedly occurred.
Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed that a security council would be held on Friday and that the president had cancelled a planned trip to the southern Stavropol region for “obvious reasons”.
Putin has justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by falsely claiming that the country, run by a Jewish president, is controlled by Nazis. In his de facto declaration of war delivered on February 24 2022, he said he had ordered a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine”. But neo-Nazis have been found fighting on the Russian side, including among the Wagner mercenary group.
Experts are concerned that the response from Putin, a former KGB agent, could be harsh because the FSB is the responsible authority tasked with a response to such an incident.
Putin trusted the FSB more than the defence ministry and the response tactics would be different, said Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in her Telegram channel. “Something serious is being prepared — they will answer.”