US intelligence believes there is a growing number of anti-government partisan groups working inside Russia.
The New York Times reported on May 24 that US intelligence officials believe that Ukraine was behind the drone attack on the Kremlin in May, which Russia claimed was an assassination attempt on President Vladimir Putin.
Putin was not present in the building when two drones struck the Kremlin roof at about 2:30am local time. The seriousness of the attack was questioned thanks to its timing. The explosions when the drones were destroyed were also small and extent of the damage was minimal, leading some to speculate that the incident was a propaganda stunt more than an attack.
Former Russian politician Ilya Ponomarev, who now lives in exile in Kyiv, claimed the partisan group Freedom for Russia was behind the attack and that the group has been increasing its activity inside Russia as it seeks to overthrow the Putin regime.
US officials also suggested that the drone attack was likely orchestrated by one of Ukraine's special military or intelligence units, according to the New York Times. These covert actions against Russian targets have raised concerns within the Biden administration, which has been closely monitoring the situation and is afraid of provoking the Kremlin to hit back at a Nato country.
More recently, a group of some 70 paramilitary militias attacked and briefly captured the Russian village of Kozinka in Belgorod Oblast just over the border from Kharkiv in Ukraine. As bne IntelliNews reported, the two militias were involved, including the Freedom for Russia Legion (FRL) group again.
The second group was the Russian Volunteers Corporate (RVC), which has deep ties to far-right neo-Nazi groups. Several of RVC members were identified from their own social media posts who are documented neo-Nazis.
The group also appears to have been backed by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) as they had been supplied with US-made military equipment, including three Humvee armoured cars that likely came from the pool of arms supplied by Nato to Ukraine.
“You have to take into account that these groups are almost certainly supported by Ukraine’s security services,” military and security expert Mark Galeotti said in an interview the next day.
Many of the members of the FRL and RVC are Russian nationals but have lived in Ukraine for years.
“We are Russians, just like you,” a Freedom of Russia Legion statement on social media said. “We are distinguished only by the fact that we no longer wanted to justify the actions of criminals in power and took up arms to defend our and your freedom.”
To what extent, if any, Zelenskiy’s government is involved in these partisan attacks remains unclear. US intelligence agencies say they do not yet have concrete evidence identifying which specific Ukrainian unit carried out the Kremlin drone strike, but they assess the level of confidence in the Ukrainian government's direct authorisation as "low," the New York Times (NYT) reports. It also remains unclear whether Zelenskiy or other top officials were aware of the operation.
In September the two Nord Stream gas pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea were blown up and according to an unconfirmed report in the NYT the explosions were organised by an independent group of Ukrainian patriots acting on their own. Kyiv also denied any involvement and all knowledge of that attack.
The Kremlin drone attack is seen as part of a series of operations that have unsettled US officials, particularly due to the potential risk of Russia blaming US officials and escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine. The Biden administration remains wary of such possibilities, considering the US's role as Ukraine's primary supplier of military equipment.
The existence of numerous partisan groups working inside Russia is becoming increasingly obvious, as reported by bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview with one of the groups.
Currently the partisans have been low key and fringe groups, focusing on infrastructure. No one has been assassinated yet, but it appears these groups, co-operating to some extent with the SBU, are becoming bolder.
The number of acts of sabotage in Russia has more than doubled so far in 2023 compared to the previous year amid the war in Ukraine, the independent news site Vyorstka reported on May 22 as cited by the Moscow Times. At least 57 attacks on Russian railways, military enlistment centres, energy sites and other targets were publicly reported in January-May 2023 versus 21 similar attacks in 2022 and only one in 2021. Nearly two-thirds of this year’s attacks targeted railway tracks.
American spy agencies are also piecing together a picture of a loose confederation of Ukraine-affiliated units capable of conducting limited operations both inside and outside Russia, the NYT reports. These units may employ their own personal or work with partners under their guidance. It is suggested that some of these operations may have taken place without significant oversight from Zelenskiy.