Around 5:50 a.m. on April 1, a fuel depot burst into flames in the Russian town of Belgorod, located less than 50 kilometers from the border with Russia. Ukraine.
A video that circulated on social networks, which was verified by the BBC, showed what appeared to be missiles falling on the facility as two helicopters passed by, unleashing a series of explosions that ended in a huge ball of fire.
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Some media reported, based on images from other videos, that two helicopters that appeared to be Mi-8 had flown low over other nearby towns hours after the explosions.
The regional governor of Belgorod, Vyacheslav Gladkov, accused Ukraine of having launched an attack on that facility and, shortly after, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said that two Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters had entered Russian airspace at extremely low altitude and had “launched a missile attack on a civilian-type fuel depot” outside Belgorod.
It was not the first time that suspicious explosions had occurred on Russian territory since Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Just a few days earlier, on March 29, several explosions were reported at an ammunition depot near Belgorod.
However, this time it was different, because, as explained by Jonathan Beale, BBC Defense Correspondent, if the involvement of kyiv in the explosion was confirmed, it was the first time that Ukrainian aircraft crossed into Russian territory to attack a target.
But despite Moscow’s accusations, kyiv did not assume any responsibility for the attack. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksandr Motuzyanyk claimed that Russia’s “aggression” was being repelled “on the territory of Ukraine.”
“That it does not mean that Ukraine is responsible for all those catastrophes and all those events that occur on the territory of the Russian Federation. This is not the first time we have seen such accusations. So, dear friends, I am not going to confirm or deny that information “he pointed out.
Accidents or attacks?
Since then, numerous suspicious incidents have been reported on Russian soil.
On April 25, for example, the town of Bryansk, located about 155 kilometers northeast of the border with Ukraine, woke up to blackened skies due to a fire in a major oil pipeline. The regional governor, Aleksandr Bogomaz, reported a fire in a fuel depot, but did not explain the cause.
There have also been explosions near Russian military installations and even at a military research institute in the city of Tver, near Moscow.
No one knows the exact number, but the media have reported more than a dozen of these events.
“They have happened in different parts of the country. They have happened in research centers, in facilities usually linked to the military and other strategic production centersso it seems quite obvious that these explosions are not a coincidence,” Matthew Orr, Eurasia analyst at Rane, a Houston-based geopolitical risk analysis consultancy, told BBC Mundo.
Analysts believe that some of these incidents may have been caused by the powerful Turkish-made Bayraktar drones that Ukraine has and that, in other cases, it may be infiltration operations of that country’s intelligence units inside Russian territory.
However, kyiv still neither acknowledges nor denies its involvement in these incidents.
Those in charge of Volodymyr Zelensky’s government have avoided clarifying what they know about these incidents, while showing some satisfaction with them.
“Belgorod, ‘Movska’, Bryansk. Constant ‘production incidents.’ of Russian oil. But should the European Union depend on a country where everything is self-destructing,” wrote Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, in a message posted on Twitter on April 25.
Ukraine’s Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko has also made references to these incidents, but using irony. Thus, in a Twitter message he posted a “no smoking” message along with an image of the fire at the fuel depots in Bryansk.
To date, the most direct response to these incidents by any Ukrainian official has been given by Oleksei Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff.
“We do not confirm and we do not deny. After what’s been going on, we don’t officially say yes and we don’t say nojust like Israel,” Arestovych said in a recent interview with New York Times referring to the policy of “strategic ambiguity” that Israel has maintained for decades regarding its nuclear weapons program.
As explained by Matthew Orr to BBC Mundo, Ukraine obtains more advantages by maintaining uncertainty on this issue.
“One can assume that possibly some of these attacks are being carried out with the help of the Ukrainian Intelligence Service and they do not see the need to give this issue more visibility because they do not want Russia to use these explosions to justify an escalation of the war. “, he points out.
Explain that from the informational point of view it is more valuable for the Ukrainians to be told that this is not being done by them, but by people in Russia who are sympathetic to the situation in kyiv and who want to sabotage the war launched by Putin.
Orr says that it is not surprising that Ukraine is carrying out actions on Russian territory because that country has been working for years to have intelligence, sources and capabilities there. “It would be unwise for them not to use those resources now,” he notes.
Threats and escalation
The recurrence of these incidents has not gone down well with Moscow, which has threatened retaliation.
“The Russian Army is ready to carry out retaliatory strikes against decision-making centers in kyiv using high-precision weapons,” Russia’s Defense Ministry warned last week, accusing Britain of “provoking” Ukraine. to carry out attacks against Russian territory.
For his part, Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused NATO of being engaged in a “proxy war” against Russia and warned that weapons delivered by the West to Ukraine are “a legitimate target” for Russian forces.
The official accused the West of “pouring gasoline on the fire” by supplying Ukraine with weapons and warned that the conflict could lead to a third world war.
But can these incidents on Russian territory lead to an escalation of the conflict?
Experts such as Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis consultancy R. Politik, have pointed out that attacks on Russian soil can increase support for the war in that country.
“Russian society is not ready for peace. Russian society expects Ukraine to be defeated. Everything that comes from Ukraine, like attacks on Russian territory, only feeds those feelings,” Stanovaya told Washington Post.
Matthew Orr, for his part, does not believe that these incidents will be the cause of an escalation, even if kyiv admits to being behind these explosions.
“It would not be decisive, but it could be part of the argument that Russia uses to escalate, but it would only be one more element,” he says.
“Russia is already using ballistic missiles to destroy railways, factories, roads, bridges and all kinds of infrastructure in Ukraine., so this would basically amount to Ukraine doing the same thing but in a quieter and more limited way. So this would only escalate if Russia decides to use it as an argument to escalate,” she adds.
In any case, it is not yet proven that Ukraine is behind all these incidents and, in fact, there are experts who consider that probably only a limited part of them correspond to actions of the Ukrainian forces.
William Alberque, director of Strategy, Technology and Arms Control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank based in the United Kingdom, has highlighted that Russia is mobilizing weapons and ammunition on a large scale, so it is possible that there have been accidents. caused by problems of negligence and corruption among the Russian forces and that Ukraine has taken advantage of to allow responsibility for these incidents to be attributed to it.
“Even when explosions may be caused by negligence, [los ucranianos] they’re content to wink and nod and let the world think they’re the result of special ops. Y the Russians are happy in some cases to blame the Ukrainians instead of admitting that the blame could lie with acts of corruption committed by Russian civil or military authorities,” Alberque said in an interview with Radio Free Europe.
The expert added that he has no doubts that the Ukrainians are carrying out sabotage actions against Russia and trying to hit as many Russian fuel and ammunition depots as they can, but said it would be a mistake to attribute every fire or explosion in Russia to kyiv.
But whether these incidents are acts of sabotage or accidents due to negligence or corruption, they still fulfill the function of raising the morale of the troops and the population in Ukraine, where, according to geopolitical expert Peter Zeihan, “the Russian military has already abandoned all hope that Ukrainian citizens welcome them as liberators or as Slavic cousins”.
Thus, in these circumstances, the strategic ambiguity of the Zelensky government allows it to benefit from any setback suffered by the Russian forces.