Anti-Moscow “partisans” on Monday were still in control a swath of borderland in Russia’s western Belgorod Oblast, as self-described “freedom fighters” aired images of Russian servicemen recently taken prisoner and trolled the Kremlin for doing nothing to save its soldiers or recover lost territory.

Images published on Sunday by the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) showed 13 disarmed Russian soldiers, 3 wounded, inside a building an RDK speaker said was in the village Novaya Tavolzhanka, scene of a series of running gun battles and artillery strikes since Thursday.

Anti-government fighters offered to exchange the prisoners of war (POWs) for a public conversation with the Kremlin-appointed regional boss, Belgorod Oblast governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, but Gladkov ignored the offer and abandoned service personnel to their fate, the statement said.

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Russian news platforms, both official and independent, confirmed the POW capture had taken place. Gladkov in Sunday statements said firefights were in progress both in Novaya Tavolzhanka and the adjacent town Shebekino. According to the international military watch website StratCom, as of Sunday anti-Kremlin fighters had control of a 10-kilometer wide swath of Russian Federation territory encompassing Novaya Tovalzhanka, Shebekino and portions of the international border.

Some 15 minutes before an RDK-set deadline for the POW exchange, Gladkov in his personal Telegram channel posted a statement saying he agreed to the talks to “preserve the lives of our guys… that probably will be executed” but called for the handover to take place in the town Shebekino rather than next to the Novaya Tavolzhanka church, as demanded by the “partisans.” RDK fighters lampooned Gladkov for, they claimed, backing out on a commitment to save Russian soldier lives.

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“Mr. Gladkov did not consider it necessary and did not find in himself the bravery to trade his valuable time for the lives and freedom, as he put it, of ‘our guys.’ Here are the same ‘guys’ that Mr. Gladkov video, said we would murder,” one RVC speaker in the 90-second video said.

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“Seeing as the governor doesn’t know what’s going on in his region, and doesn’t know how many prisoners ‘of his guys’ we actually have captured, we will negotiate with the people making decisions in Moscow. The fate of these ‘guys’ we have already decided. We will hand them over to the Ukrainians to be exchanged,” a second male dressed in military uniform said.

Official Kremlin information platforms have tried to downplay the scale and effectiveness of a series of border incursions launched from Ukrainian territory into Belgorod Oblast, at times finding themselves embarrassed by contradictions between the Moscow narrative and reports from more independent information sources.

Russia’s Defense Ministry on Friday declared the “enemy” fighters operating in Belgorod Oblast utterly wiped out, only to be confronted over the weekend with a wave of social media images and independent news reports attesting to RDK infantry and fighters from an allied anti-Putin paramilitary group, called the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) firing on Russian troops and advancing in Shebekino and Novaya Tavolzhanka, with armored vehicles and Ukrainian artillery in support. Some content showed Russian soldiers being taken prisoner.

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Social media video from Sunday, widely shared but unconfirmed, showed houses burning in Novaya Tavolzhanka, the Shebekino town bazaar on fire following a reported artillery strike, and damage from artillery shells or mortar rounds in other localities, forcing local residents to take shelter in homes and basements. Civilians looted stores in Shebekino, the independent Russian news platform Astra reported.

Residents evacuated from the Belgorod region's zones bordering Ukraine, including those from the town of Shebekino, queue outside a temporary shelter set up at the Belgorod Arena on June 2. PHOTO: AFP

Russian military writer Gennady Alekhin, a longtime and outspoken supporter of the Kremlin invasion of Ukraine, on June 4 wrote that the situation in the Belgorod Oblast border region “is not improving” with Ukrainian artillery strikes hitting five Russian villages, street battles on Novaya Tavolzhanka, and anti-government fighters operating freely in adjacent forests. 

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The pro-Moscow blogger Sladkov+ reported Russian local defense units had asked authorities for weapons and been refused, making the Belgorod Oblast Territorial Defense forces “not a combat unit but a peaceful demonstration.”

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group and a vicious critic of the Russian Defense Ministry, in a Saturday broadside published on his Telegram channel offered to send his fighters to Belgorod to free the captured Russian soldiers because the Russian national military leadership was, possibly, incompetent to do so.

“If the Ministry of Defense does not stop the chaos and lawlessness… We will not wait for an invitation and ask permission. The only thing is that we will require ammunition,” Prigozhin said.

A spokesmen for the "Russian partisans" on Monday afternoon responded to Prigozhin, saying: "It has our attention that Lieutenant Colonel Roman Vinivitin, commander of the 72nd Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces, has been taken prisoner by members of the Wagner PMCs. As a gesture of goodwill, we are offering to exchange him for several soldiers of the Russian Armed Forces captured by us during the liberation battles in the Belgorod region."

On Sunday mercenaries loyal to Prigozhin took Colonel Vinivitin captive in the Donbas region following, Prigozhin said, attempts by Russian army troops to harm Wagner company operatives heading east.

Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov in the Kremlin’s daily situation update on Sunday commented in detail on a series of Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) attacks in various sectors of the front, but commented neither on the situation in Belgorod Oblast nor on Prigozhin’s open threat to send his mercenaries.

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The Washington-based Institute for the Study of Warfare (ISW) in a Sunday situation estimate said that most likely the official Moscow silence on the Belgorod Oblast border incursions is linked to Kremlin unwillingness to take serious action and thereby, tacitly, admit the attacks took place and that defenses of Russian Federation borders are weak.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a June 4 tweet trolled Russian official attempts to divert Russian public concern over the Belgorod Oblast border battles. The Russian state, he argued, is concealing the established fact it has lost control of a key border region.

Chaos, lack of governance (runaway officials), total shelling of residential neighborhoods by the Russian army, aggressive mass looting, extortion of money for evacuation, violence of all kinds, lawlessness of criminal gangs, powerlessness... And most importantly, total information (manipulation). After all, what ‘hasn’t been shown on TV’ doesn’t exist, right?” Podolyak said.

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