KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Kremlin on Thursday accused Ukrainian saboteurs of crossing into western Russia and firing on villagers. Ukraine denied the claim and warned that Moscow could use the allegations to justify stepping up its own attacks in the ongoing war.
The exact circumstances of the alleged attack reported in the Bryansk region were unclear, including what the strategic purpose of such an assault might be.
If confirmed, it would be another indication following drone attacks earlier this week that Kyiv may be stepping up pressure against Moscow by exposing Russian defensive weaknesses, embarrassing the Kremlin and sowing unease among Russian civilians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukrainian “terrorists” for an incursion, claiming that they deliberately targeted civilians, including children in “yet another terror attack, another crime.”
“They infiltrated the area near the border and opened fire on civilians,” Putin said during a video call. “They saw a civilian vehicle with civilians, with children in it and they fired on them.”
The alleged incursion came just days after Putin ordered the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, to tighten controls on Russia’s border with Ukraine.
While Russian war hawks have expressed dismay about what they have seen as Putin’s reluctance to declare martial law and a sweeping mobilization of soldiers, the Russian leader’s comments Thursday did not appear to signal any such moves.
Putin blamed the attack on “neo-Nazis” and said it confirmed that Russia did the right thing by invading Ukraine. “I repeat again: They will not succeed and we will finish pushing them out,” he said.
When he ordered the invasion, the Russian leader vowed to “denazify” Ukraine, alleging falsely that radical neo-Nazi groups dominate the country led by a Jewish president. Kyiv and its Western allies dismissed his assertion as a bogus cover for an unprovoked act of aggression.
Ukraine’s military intelligence representative, Andrii Cherniak, saw the Russian claims as evidence that Moscow is facing what Kyiv says is an uprising among its own disgruntled people.
“This was done by the Russians; Ukraine has nothing to do with it,” he told The Associated Press.
Cherniak noted that a group calling itself the Russian Volunteer Corps claimed it crossed the border into Russia in a video that also urged Russians to rebel. The group’s statement did not explain what actions it took or what specific objectives it wanted to achieve.
The Russian Volunteer Corps describes itself as “a volunteer formation in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Little is known about the group, and it was not immediately clear if it has any ties with the Ukrainian military.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak described the Russian claims as “a classic deliberate provocation.”
Russia “wants to scare its people to justify the attack on another country (and) the growing poverty after the year of war,” he tweeted, suggesting that Russian partisans were behind what happened in Bryansk.
Bryansk Gov. Alexander Bogomaz said the attackers killed two civilians and wounded a child in the village of Lyubechane.
Russia’s Federal Security Service said it acted together with the military to “eliminate armed Ukrainian nationalists who violated the state border.” The agency reported later that it had brought the situation under control and was checking the area for land mines.
Putin canceled a planned trip to southern Russia because of the attack. He is set to chair a weekly meeting of the Russian Security Council on Friday.
Asked by reporters whether the activity could warrant a change in the status of the conflict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded, “I can’t say for now.”
The raid in the Bryansk region followed a spate of drone attacks. On Tuesday, drones that the Kremlin said were launched by Ukraine flew deep inside Russian territory, including one that got within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of Moscow. The Russian Defense Ministry also said Wednesday that the military repelled a drone attack on Crimea.
In Ukraine’s southern city of Zaporizhzhia, three people were killed and six others were wounded early Thursday when a Russian missile hit a five-story apartment building, destroying several floors.
A Russian drone attack hit people standing in line for humanitarian aid in a village in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region, wounding nine people, including a 16-year-old, the regional administration said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia “wants to turn every day for our people into a day of terror,” adding that “evil will not reign in our land.”
Russian artillery, drones and missiles have pounded Ukrainian-held areas in the country’s south and east for months. Moscow denies aiming at civilian targets, but its indiscriminate shelling has wrought wide destruction in urban centers.
The war largely slowed to a grinding stalemate during the winter months, but a fierce battle continued for control of Bakhmut, a key eastern stronghold where Ukrainian officials say they might strategically withdraw.
The Ukrainian military’s general staff reported that the Russian forces “continue to advance and storm the city,” but Kyiv’s troops repelled some of the attacks. Capturing the city would not only give Russian fighters a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but it might rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and allow the Kremlin’s forces to press toward other Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
In other developments, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked briefly Thursday at a meeting of top diplomats from the Group of 20 nations. It was the first high-level meeting in months between Russia and the U.S.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation, said Blinken had “disabused” Lavrov of any idea that U.S. support for Ukraine is wavering.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee contributed reporting from New Delhi.