Russia claims Ukraine crossing border in sabotage attacks, Kyiv denies

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian officials accused Ukrainian saboteurs of crossing into western Russia and attacking local villages Thursday, an accusation that Ukraine denied, warning that Moscow could use the claims to justify stepping up its own assaults in the ongoing war.

The exact circumstances of the incident reported in the Bryansk region were unclear, including what the strategic purpose of such an attack might be.

If confirmed, it would be another indication following drone attacks earlier this week that Kyiv could be stepping up pressure against Moscow by exposing Russian defensive weaknesses, embarrassing the Kremlin and sowing unease among Russian civilians.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukrainian “terrorists” for an incursion, claiming that they deliberately targeted civilians, including children.

“It was yet another terror attack, another crime,” Putin said during a video call. “They infiltrated the area near the border and opened fire on civilians.”

While Russian war hawks have expressed dismay about what they saw as Putin’s reluctance to declare martial law and a sweeping mobilization of soldiers, the Russian leader’s comments Thursday’s didn’t appear to signal any such moves.

Putin said the attack in the Bryansk region, which he blamed on “neo-Nazis,” confirmed that Russia did the right thing by launching its “special military operation” in Ukraine. “I repeat again: They will not succeed and we will finish pushing them out,” he said.

Putin is set to chair a weekly meeting of his Security Council on Friday. Asked by reporters whether the attack in Bryansk could warrant a change in the status of the conflict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded with a coy “I can’t say for now.”

Peskov said that Putin canceled a planned trip to southern Russia set for Thursday and was receiving reports on the situation from the regional governor.

Thursday’s apparent incursion came just days after Putin ordered the Federal Security Service to tighten controls on Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak described the Russian reports 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 the attack was the work of Russian partisans.

Amid conflicting initial reports, Russia’s Federal Security Service said fighting with the sabotage unit was taking place in the Bryansk region.

The Federal Security Service was quoted by the Russian state Tass news agency as saying that “activities to eliminate armed Ukrainian nationalists who violated the state border” were underway.

Tass, citing Russian law enforcement, reported earlier that the saboteurs were holding up to six people hostage. The local governor said the group had fired on a vehicle there, killing one man and wounding a 10-year-old child.

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Tass reported, citing an unnamed security official, that two villages in the Bryansk region — Sushany and Lyubechane — were under attack by “several dozen armed fighters.”

Alexander Bogomaz, the governor of the Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine, said the group fired on a vehicle in Lyubechane, killing one man and wounding a child. He also said that a Ukrainian drone struck a house in the Sushany, setting it ablaze.

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.

Ukraine’s military intelligence representative, Andrii Cherniak, saw the Russian claims as evidence that it is facing what Kyiv alleges 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 had claimed responsibility for the attack in a video where they urge Russians to rebel.

The Russian Volunteer Corps describes itself as “a volunteer formation in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Little is known about the group and it’s not immediately clear if the group indeed has any ties with the Ukrainian military. Nor was it clear from the Corps statement what action it took and what specific objectives it wanted to achieve.

In Ukraine on Thursday, three people were killed and six others were wounded when a Russian missile hit a five-story apartment building in a southeastern city.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that several floors of the building were destroyed in the strike, which occurred while it was still dark.

The State Emergency Service said in an online statement that it had rescued 11 people so far.

Zaporizhzhia is a large city that had a population of more than 700,000 before Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor just over a year ago. It’s the administrative capital of the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region, which is home to Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

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.

Zelenskyy said Russia “wants to turn every day for our people into a day of terror.” He added: “But evil will not reign in our land.”

Meanwhile, a fierce battle continued for control of Bakhmut, a key eastern stronghold where Ukrainian officials say they might strategically withdraw.

Ukraine’s General Staff reported that the Russian forces “continue to advance and storm the city,” but Kyiv’s troops repelled some of the attacks on the ruined city. Donetsk regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko reported that one person was wounded in Bakhmut on Thursday morning.

Bakhmut was among cities and villages in the Donetsk region that came under Russian shelling, according to the General Staff update.

Taking the city wouldn’t only give the Russian forces 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 the Kremlin might have that U.S. support for Ukraine is wavering. ___

Matthew Lee contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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