May 24, 2023 - 10:00am

If the intention of this week’s Belgorod raid was to distract attention from the fall of Bakhmut, then it was a tremendous success. The year-long battle for the city, which cost the lives of unknown thousands of men, already looks like yesterday’s news: the daring raid into Russian border villages, carried out by a few dozen Russian exiles from the Free Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps militias, was a perfect social media spectacle. Just like the British Commando raids of World War Two, explicitly masterminded by Churchill to boost morale after the evacuation from Dunkirk, the operation — which Moscow claims it has repelled — showed that Ukraine is still firmly in the fight, and can take the war to Russia wherever it chooses.

More, the raid proved that despite its recent, painful success in Bakhmut, the Russian army remains poorly organised, unprepared, and slow to react to events on the ground. A humiliation to Vladimir Putin, a fillip to the morale of both Ukraine and its international supporters, and a demonstration that the war is far from over, the Belgorod operation was a perfect example of information operations in a social media era.

In another way, too, the operation demonstrates Ukraine’s total mastery of the war’s information space. Given the nature of Russia’s propaganda attempting to justify the invasion, it would instinctively seem poor optics to permit open neo-Nazis, like the Russian Volunteer Corps’ Alexey Levkin and Denis Nikitin, to invade Russia from Ukraine, especially in American-donated vehicles. But Putin is likely to make less of this apparent gift than may be expected: the propaganda value will likely be outweighed by the humiliation of Russia’s lax border security, causing Moscow to downplay the operation. 

The pro-Russian voices who will make most of it have already cried wolf by erroneously calling all of Ukraine’s forces Nazis, and Ukraine’s loudest foreign supporters will happily avert their eyes. Whether or not the Biden administration, a far more cautious actor in Ukraine than its domestic opponents seem to think, will view the operation with the same equanimity remains to be seen. Given Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s promises that any donated F-16s will not be used to attack Russian territory, the deployment of American-donated vehicles inside Russia itself may be a risky step.

Despite Kyiv’s winked denials, there is no doubt that this was a Ukrainian-managed operation. If anything, the alternative scenario — that dubious Russian militias had somehow acquired weapons and American armoured vehicles and were independently roaming around Ukraine’s border regions — would be far more alarming. The Pentagon US intelligence leaks already established that Zelenskyy had previously proposed occupying Russian border villages for leverage in future peace negotiations. 

Meanwhile, the Russian military blog “Rybar” — at times a fierce critic of Moscow’s prosecution of the war — warned earlier in the month that “we can say with confidence that among the [Ukrainian] junior command staff the topic of creating a “buffer zone” 15-20 km in the Russian border area has been discussed for a long time.” 

Whether or not the Belgorod operation can be considered a shaping operation for Ukraine’s long-anticipated spring offensive remains to be seen. But by demonstrating that Russia’s thinly-defended 700 km border with Ukraine is vulnerable to incursion, the operation may have the effect of diverting troops needed to man Russia’s defence lines in eastern Ukraine away from the battlefield, weakening its response to the eventual blow. A sideshow in the grand scheme of the Ukraine war, the Belgorod operation nevertheless sets the stage for what Ukraine hopes will be its defining campaign.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.