May 26, 2023 - 10:00am

For Ukraine, perhaps the only challenge equal to waging war against its enemy on the battlefield is managing tensions with its friends away from it. On Monday, the Belgorod region came under attack in one of largest cross-border raids into Russia over the course of the war. Two pro-Ukraine and anti-Kremlin Russian groups, the Russian Volunteers Corps (RDK) and the Liberty of Russia Legion (FRL), have claimed responsibility.

While Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that his nation had “nothing to do with it” and that instead an “armed guerrilla movement” was opposing a “totalitarian country”, the Russian Defence Ministry blamed Kyiv and claimed to have killed over 70 “Ukrainian terrorists” in suppressing the assault. For its part, the RDK commented that Ukraine had not provided direction, only medicine, petrol, food and information.

A great deal remains unconfirmed. However, White House spokesperson John Kirby acknowledged this week that the US is investigating reports of American-made Humvees and mine-resistant vehicles having been used in the assault. Both were supplied by the US to Ukraine last year, yet the American administration was quick to distance itself from the audacious raid. 

US officials told NBC News that Washington has not authorised Ukraine to give the equipment to others and Ukraine never requested the right to do so. Meanwhile, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller stressed that “we have made very clear to the Ukrainians that we don’t enable or encourage attacks outside [their] borders”.

Miller’s statement is merely the latest sign of unease within the US government over Ukraine’s incursions into Russian territory and penchant for high-profile attacks. Russia’s reaction to the Belgorod raid will do nothing to calm US fears that it may inflame the conflict further, with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu promising an “extremely harsh” response. 

Meanwhile, the discovery of US equipment in Belgorod is likely to fuel American and Nato fears of being drawn into a broader war. Long-range weapons donated to Ukraine — albeit not used here — come with the proviso that they not be used to hit targets in Russia, lest the Kremlin use this to support its claim that it is under attack by the West with Ukraine merely a proxy.

Reports suggest Belgorod is just the latest assault on Russian soil. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied his country’s involvement in the drone attack on the Kremlin on 3rd May and speculated that it may have been a Russian false flag operation, US officials this week suggested it was likely orchestrated by a Ukrainian special military or intelligence unit with or without the knowledge of Zelenskyy and his officials.

US government sources also told the New York Times that the Ukrainians may have been responsible for other attacks on Russian border towns and the assassinations of Russian pro-war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky and Darya Dugina, the daughter of nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin. Other US intelligence reports note that, in February, Zelenskyy proposed using unmanned aerial vehicles to hit Russian deployment locations in Rostov, despite American discouragement of cross-border attacks.

While Ukraine strives to make Vladimir Putin appear vulnerable and raise public morale through attention-seeking hits, the US views these hits as a distraction from the actual war being waged in the south and east. Another American concern is the lack of oversight within the Ukrainian system, with officials warning that some Ukrainian covert operatives work without the direct supervision or even knowledge of the Kyiv administration. Yet they are still able to organise operations in Russia, often through partners working under their direction. 

This divergence is only likely to grow. RDK commander Denis Kapustin has threatened more raids and the Liberty of Russia Legion shared footage of smoke emanating from the Russian Defence Ministry on Wednesday night, prompting speculation of a drone attack.

When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden reassured Zelenskyy that Washington would “support the Ukrainian people as they defend their country”. Yet, as Ukraine moves from defence to attack, splits are emerging in the alliance with its greatest supporter.