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Unexplained attacks inside Russian territory raise prospect of wider conflict

Smoke rising from oil storage facilities hit by fire in Bryansk (Photo: AP)

Russian officials said last month that two Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters entered Russian airspace flying at low altitudes to evade air defenses and launched a missile attack on a fuel depot in Russia’s Belgorod region, a province that sits on the western edge of the country, less than 20 miles from Ukraine’s war-ravaged city of Kharkiv.

Since then, an explosion sparked a blaze at an ammunition depot near the city of Belgorod and blasts have been reported inside the city. Last week, fires erupted at other oil depots, including one at a Russian military base. Other explosions have damaged rail lines beyond Belgorod in the provinces of Kursk and Bryansk. Ukraine has denied a role in the incidents.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, who has declined to comment on whether Ukraine had any involvement in the blasts, has said they could have been caused by divine retribution following the killing of Ukrainian civilians.

“There may be totally different reasons for the destruction of military infrastructure in border provinces, including even…divine intervention," he said.

Russia blamed Ukraine on Thursday for shelling inside Russia during artillery exchanges between the two sides over the border, but Russian authorities have played down the larger incidents in recent weeks. Regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov denied the city of Belgorod had come under attack by the Ukrainians, telling residents that a series of loud explosions over recent days were the result of military operations, without offering details.

But Western analysts believe Ukraine has sought to attack transit and logistics infrastructure inside Russian territory to disrupt Moscow’s effort to concentrate forces in Ukraine’s east.

“Ukraine is looking to cross-border operations, and it’s looking for certain targets that could disrupt the Russian war effort," said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based foreign-policy think tank.

Belgorod has become a strategically vital logistics hub for Russian plans to take control of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and deploy Russian soldiers south toward the urban centers of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, where Ukraine’s headquarters for operations in the east is located. Ukrainian military commanders reported last month that Russia’s central military district units, a division of the 14th Air Defense Army and Iskander-M ballistic missile units are being sent to Belgorod for eventual deployment to eastern Ukraine.

“Russia wants to make this fight about the Donbas. Ukraine wants to do the exact opposite, to expand the fight as much as possible to prevent Russia from concentrating forces and cross border operations are a way of doing that," said Mr. Lee.

The Institute for the Study of War said in a report that Ukrainian forces will likely continue to conduct cross-border strikes to disrupt Russian logistics, possibly with drone or missile strikes. But new weapons that the Ukrainians will receive from the West are much more powerful than anything they or the Russians currently have, raising the possibility of more strikes deeper inside Russian territory.

Early on in the conflict, Ukraine proved its ability to reach targets inside Russia. The day after Russia launched early-morning missile attacks on Ukrainian military infrastructure on Feb. 24, Kyiv allegedly hit one of the airfields involved in the invasion with a ballistic missile strike that killed one pilot.

Neither Russian nor Ukrainian authorities commented on the strike, but a military academy from which the pilot graduated said he died from wounds he suffered when Ukraine hit the Millerovo Air Base in Russia’s Rostov province on Feb. 25 with a Tochka-U ballistic missile.

On April 15, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russian air-defense systems had shot down a Ukrainian helicopter that had shot at targets in Russia’s Bryansk province.

Russia’s failure to prevent more of the incidents at fuel depots and railways could be a result of increased intelligence sharing between the West and Ukraine, said Mr. Lee, including information on where Russian air-defense vulnerabilities might be or the use of electronic warfare to compromise Russian air-defense systems.

The strikes on Russia’s critical infrastructure have increased since Western officials said Kyiv’s war effort could go beyond defending the country to target Russia itself.

A junior U.K. defense minister said last month that it was completely legitimate for Ukraine to strike logistics and supply lines inside Russia with weapons provided by the West, marking a major shift for the U.K., which for months has provided weapons on the condition they be used to defend Ukraine from Russian attack.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also said last month that the U.S.’s aim was not just to help Ukraine defend itself but to see Russia’s military capabilities degraded “to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine."

Other analysts haven’t ruled out other factors in the blasts, including Russia’s lax safety standards. Explosions could also happen as Russia reaches deeper into its strategic reserves of munitions, deploying missiles and artillery that have long lain dormant in military warehouses.

“The explosions might also be the result of accidents, possibly involving Russian munitions being stored within or transported through the military logistics network," said Nick Reynolds, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based security think tank.