Armed soldiers in field.

Representatives of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) are pictured during a briefing near the border in northern Ukraine on May 24, 2023.

(Photo: NurPhoto / Contributor)

Raids in Belgorod by Alleged Russian Paramilitary Units Should Be a Wakeup Call for Biden

As long as the war continues there will be a strong incentive for both sides to escalate, and the United States cannot control this process.

The raid by alleged Russian opposition paramilitaries from Ukraine into the Russian province of Belgorod should be an alarm call for the Biden administration concerning the difficulty of controlling escalation in Ukraine to minimize the risk of the U.S. getting drawn into the war.

For this reason, official U.S. policy continues to oppose Ukrainian attacks on the territory of Russia proper, and last year the Ukrainian government promised Washington not to do so.

This is the second raid by the opposition militias into Russia, following one into Bryansk in March. Drone attacks from Ukraine into Russia are also reported to be continuing. Having been invaded by Russia, Ukraine of course has a perfect legal and moral right to hit back at Russian territory. Whether this is in the interests of the United States is a very different matter—and given the critical American role in arming and supporting Ukraine, the U.S. administration also has the right to a say in how its aid is used.

“The problem about continually ratcheting up our support to Ukraine in the belief that Russia does not have any red lines is that we won’t know that we have crossed a red line until we have actually crossed it, and Russia has retaliated.”

Indeed, it has not just a right, but a duty to the American people to exercise this influence. For the Biden administration (and the great majority of the governments of America’s NATO allies) have repeatedly promised their electorates that they will not allow the West to become directly engaged in a war with Russia. Enabling Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory points ultimately in just that direction.

The New York Times has published pictures indicating that U.S. armored vehicles were used in the attack, and this has been confirmed by Denis Nikitin, the commander of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), one of the armed groups involved. Nikitin previously stated that his group has operated “directly under Kyiv’s command,” and that the attack on Bryansk was approved by the Ukrainian authorities.

A representative of the RVC told Newsweek in April that

“Ukraine helps our struggle in every possible way. We would hardly be able to have weapons if there was no help from the state, at a minimum, and also, on the territory of Ukraine, we are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.”

In response to the raid, the State Department has repeated that, “we have made very clear to the Ukrainians that we don’t enable or encourage attacks outside Ukraine’s borders.”

The Pentagon has issued a statement saying: “We can confirm the U.S. government has not approved any third-party transfers of equipment to paramilitary organizations outside the Ukrainian armed forces, nor has the Ukrainian government requested any such transfer.”

This may be what Washington is telling the Ukrainians, but it is unclear whether the Ukrainians are listening. Kyiv has publicly denied involvement in the raid, but a Ukrainian official has acknowledged in private that “co-operation” occurred.

Assuming that there has been no shift in U.S. policy, the Belgorod raid could therefore be an indication of the degree to which Kyiv now feels able to ignore U.S. wishes while continuing to receive huge amounts of U.S. assistance. As so often in the past, U.S. aid backed by domestic American political forces, far from strengthening U.S. influence over the recipient government, would in fact be making American policy dependent on that of its client.

Moreover, one of the militias claiming involvement in the Belgorod raid and other attacks within Russia, the RVC, espouses Neo-Nazi beliefs. Its leader, according to The Washington Post, “is a former mixed martial arts fighter with ties to white-nationalist groups throughout Europe.” For U.S. aid to find its way to such a group would be a gift to Russian propaganda alleging widespread neo-Nazism in Ukraine.

The Belgorod raid coincides with two other related developments with potentially dire implications for escalation. The first is the announcement that the United States will now supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter-bombers—aircraft that can strike deep into Russia. Biden has said that President Volodymyr Zelensky has promised that these planes will not in fact be used to attack Russian territory—but given recent developments and the U.S. intelligence’s assessment that Ukraine was behind several attacks in Russia, relying on such promises may prove too risky for the U.S.

Ukraine has no capacity to maintain these planes, and it would take a very long time to develop such a capacity. This means that if they are in fact deployed, they will either have to be serviced by U.S. and NATO personnel on the ground at Ukrainian airfields, or fly out of NATO bases in Poland. Either option would bring NATO a long step closer to direct involvement in the war.

The second development is the media statement by Ukrainian military intelligence chief General Kyrylo Budanov that his service was behind a series of assassination attempts and acts of sabotage in Russia—something that had been suggested by leaked Pentagon documents and widely assumed by observers, but previously publicly and repeatedly denied by the Ukrainian government. U.S. intelligence officials have also told The New York Times that they believe that Ukraine was probably behind the drone attack on the Kremlin, as well as the Belgorod attack and the assassination attempts in Russia.

This too marks a clear defiance of U.S. wishes. After the first assassination attempt inside Russia on nationalist intellectual Alexander Dugin (whose daughter was killed) it was reported (evidently on the basis of a deliberate official leak) that the CIA had sent a strong message to the Ukrainian government opposing such attacks. Budanov has now admitted that they continued regardless, with the assassination last month of nationalist blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, and the attempted assassination of former Donbas separatist fighter Zakhar Prilepin (who was wounded).

One should recognize Ukraine’s right to strike at Russian territory, and sympathize greatly with Ukrainian desire to do so after the casualties and destruction that Ukraine has suffered as a result of the Russian invasion. Nonetheless, even when they succeed, such attacks are highly problematic.

Strategically, assassinations are pointless. The raid into Belgorod, while politically mistaken, does make military sense in terms of trying to draw Russian forces away from the front in Ukraine to a defense of Russia itself. But killing individual Russian nationalist intellectuals and bloggers (whose influence on Putin has in any case been greatly exaggerated) is not going to affect the Russian war effort in any way.

The murders are also dangerous, because they provide a precedent for Russia to respond in kind, by the assassination of Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians, either within Ukraine or in the West—thereby adding another move to the spiral of escalation.

The greatest lesson of the Belgorod raid and the Ukrainian assassination campaign is that whatever Washington may wish, as long as the war continues there will be a strong incentive for both sides to escalate, either because they see military advantage in doing so, or in retaliation for actions by the enemy; and the United States cannot control this process.

The United States and its allies for their part have repeatedly provided Ukraine with new weapons that they had previously stated would not be given. These increases in aid have been motivated not by an increase in the threat by Russia, but on the contrary, by Russian defeats and a growing belief that Russia will never respond by some form of attacks on the West.

This however is an assumption, not a fact; and as a former CIA analyst put it, “The problem about continually ratcheting up our support to Ukraine in the belief that Russia does not have any red lines is that we won’t know that we have crossed a red line until we have actually crossed it, and Russia has retaliated.”

The Biden administration should continue to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion; but it must also always remember that its primary and permanent duty is to the safety of the American sovereign people—which means keeping the U.S. out of direct involvement in the war.

© 2023 Responsible Statecraft