Russia Is Now Arming Citizen Militias Along Ukraine Border

Regional governors are handing over machine guns and SUVs to Russian volunteers as cross-border attacks multiply.

AP/Jae C. Hong
At Kyiv, Svitlana Sushko, 62, sobs while visiting the grave of her youngest son, a Ukrainian soldier who was killed last year in the war against Russia, August 3, 2023. AP/Jae C. Hong

Add this to the summer’s growing list of twists and turns in the Ukrainian army’s months-long effort to repel President Putin’s soldiers: Russian officials are now handing out machine guns to citizen soldiers directly across the border with Ukraine. 

While this development has no direct impact on the fighting along the existing front line in eastern Ukraine, it represents a new and potentially messy escalation in the Russian attempt to subdue Ukraine — with or without official sanction from the Kremlin.

Yet it did not come out of left field. Cross-border attacks, mainly in the form of shelling of the Russian side of the border from the Ukrainian but not only, have been going on for at least a year following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The Russian regions concerned are Belgorod and Kursk, and both are due north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and one that is now under full Ukrainian control even though vulnerable to intermittent Russian fire.

It now looks like things will be heating up along these long borders. According to multiple Russian press reports, volunteer “people’s squads” count 2,000 members in the Kursk region alone. To such members, hundreds of weapons are being distributed under the direction of the regional governor. 

The regional governor of Belgorod, Vyacheslav Gladkov, has said that machine guns as well as anti-drone guns and even Russian-made sports-utility vehicles will now be handed over to an unnamed Russian citizen’s militia in the region. 

Whether the weapons will come from Moscow or regional stockpiles was not immediately clear. Yet the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that thousands of male volunteers — not soldiers — have already received “combat” training, a claim that could not be independently verified. 

Interestingly, the newspaper noted that “armed militias are another line of defense” against what the locals portray as “Ukrainian saboteurs.” While the prospect of machine-gun-toting Russian villagers will not help Ukrainians positioned across the border sleep at night, it could bring some measure of consolation that they have managed to instill fear in a population that is clearly vulnerable to more than occasional drone strikes. 

On Thursday, Mr. Gladkov said via his Telegram channel that Ukrainian troops fired almost a hundred shells at the border areas. Those included, he stated, “Four artillery shells that were fired at the village of Ustinka. The village of Shchetinovka was fired from grenade launchers —13 SPG-9 and 29 AGS-17 shots were recorded.”

“In the Shebekinsky urban district, three mortar shells were fired at the Pankov farm, two artillery shells at the village of Bezlyudovka, two mortar shells at the village of Sereda, ten mortar shells at the territory between the villages of Surkovo and Pervotseplyaevo,” he further specified. 

While no casualties were reported, the cross-fire can be expected to multiply if armed militia members in Russia start firing back in the direction of the Ukrainian side of the border. 

As the tumultuous summer drags on, Ukraine faces other improbable foes. Britain’s ministry of defense says that plants — yes, you read correctly, plants – are now hindering Ukraine’s multi-pronged counteroffensive. 

In a statement on social media, the ministry wrote that “the return of weeds and shrubs accelerating under the warm, damp summer conditions” has had the knock-on effect of camouflaging Russian defensive positions, which makes defensive mine fields tougher to clear. “Although undergrowth can also provide cover for small stealthy infantry assaults, the net effect has been to make it harder for either side to make advances,” it said. 

This comes as the New York Times reported that the Ukrainian army, despite its persistence, is facing big problems — some of which are of Washington’s making. “The complicated training in Western maneuvers has given the Ukrainians scant solace in the face of barrage after barrage of Russian artillery,” the Times reports. 

The quality of the training the Ukrainians have received from the West to date is coming under greater scrutiny, and questions are now being raised about “whether tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nearly $44 billion worth from the Biden administration, have been successful in transforming the Ukrainian military into a NATO-standard fighting force.”

Biden administration officials would do well to note that part of the problem with the war in Ukraine right now is not just with the battle lines that have been drawn for months, it is that the battle lines are also blurring — north of Ukraine in the Russian border regions, as the militia movement suggests, and south of Ukraine in the Black Sea, too. How ready is Ukraine for the next chapter of this fight?

The New York Sun

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