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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Ukraine Is Getting Inside Russia’s Borders — And Inside Russian Heads

A series of brazen attacks into Russian territory, from the border region all the way to the placing a target on Putin's life, may have limited military ends. But it is a perfect example of psychological warfare against an increasingly vulnerable nation.

Image of Representatives of the Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) holding a briefing near the border in northern Ukraine.

May 24, 2023: Representatives of the Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) hold a briefing near the border in northern Ukraine.

Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform/ZUMA
Cameron Manley


For the Russian military, the turbulence of the past few days is unpleasant, but not unusual. For the Russian nation, something altogether new appears to be underway.

On Monday, Russian anti-Kremlin fighters claimed to have attacked two villages inside Russia’s Belgorod region, after crossing from Ukraine. By Tuesday, the Russian regional governor said the cross-border incursion had been crushed. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu threatened to respond to similar attacks “promptly and with extreme harshness.”

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Meanwhile, a media report late Wednesday said that U.S. intelligence sources believe Ukrainian secret services have orchestrated a series of brazen attacks deep inside Russia, including the May 3 drone strike on the Kremlin itself.

Taken together, these incidents could be a sign of things to come — as Ukraine appears to see a new opening to take advantage of Russian vulnerability inside its own borders in a bold form of psychological warfare.

In more immediate terms, the Belgorod attacks come as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky returns home from a diplomatic world tour, armed with promises from allies for more powerful weaponry, including long-range cruise missiles and, eventually, fighter jets.

At the same time, Ukrainian forces also finally appeared to cede full control of Bakhmut — a potentially Pyrrhic victory for Russian forces, who are reported to have lost as many as 100,000 soldiers and tied up vital resources for months in the battle for the city.

Sowing confusion 

But attention this week has been focused most of all on the attacks in Belgorod. Ukraine has denied any connection to the two Russian partisan militia behind the operation: the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC). Denis Nikitin, a Russian far-right figure, described himself as the RVC commander when he met reporters on Wednesday in Ukraine’s northern Sumy region, which borders Russia. Nikitin said that inside Ukraine, the RVC’s actions are planned with the knowledge and assistance of the Ukrainian military, but anything outside of the country’s borders “is our decision.”

It's leaving Russian commanders guessing about where and when a counteroffensive may begin.

The website of the Freedom of Russia Legion, meanwhile, says it was formed last spring “out of Russians’ desire to fight against Putin’s armed gang,” and is “officially recognized” by the Ukrainian armed forces. “We are fighting in full cooperation with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and under the leadership of the Ukrainian command,” the website says.

Yet more than territory and casualties, the goal of these attacks may be to sow confusion and doubt, by sending the message that Ukrainians and allies can strike behind Russian lines, and leaving Russian commanders guessing about where and when a counteroffensive may begin — or if it already has.

Striking the seat of power

Earlier in May, suicide drones targeted the roof of the Kremlin, an attack that US officials are now claiming may have been directed by Ukraine after some had speculated that it was a staged Russian "false flag" operation to justify brutal reprisals.

Ukrainian President Zelensky has previously denied that Ukraine was targeting Putin or Moscow directly. “We are fighting on our territory; we are defending our villages and cities,” he said in May. But intercepts gathered by U.S. intelligence captured members of Ukraine's military and intelligence bureaucracy speculating that Ukrainian special operations forces were responsible for the Moscow attack.

According to those intelligence reports, Zelensky, his entourage discussed the general parameters of a covert campaign with Ukrainian intelligence — but the president reportedly left the choice of targets and methods up to the spy service.

If true, it would be the latest in a series of attacks that may be tied to Ukrainian covert forces. The New York Timesreports that Ukrainians are likely also to be responsible for orchestrating the murder of Russian propagandists Darya Dugina and Vladlen Tatarsky, as well as a series of attacks on Russian settlements in the border areas, including the latest in the Belgorod region.

Taken together, it paints a picture that suddenly makes Russians inside their own territory — and homes — feel vulnerable in a way that only soldiers at the front and their families have experienced until now.

Image of Russia's President Vladimir Putin attending an expanded meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia.

May 25, 2023: Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends an expanded meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia.

Ilya Pitalev/TASS/ZUMA

Killing Putin

Another important revelation of Ukrainian intentions inside Russia came recently from Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine's Main Intelligence Directorate. In a May 19 interview with the Italian publication La Repubblica, he said Ukrainian spies are actively trying to kill Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A similar fate awaits mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, he says.

“Our priority is to eliminate the unit commander who orders his men to attack,” Skibitsky told La Repubblica. Putin is the top target “because he coordinates and decides what happens.”

“But in the end, everyone will have to answer for their actions. Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu planned the attack, and now they cannot turn back.”

Pressure on the Kremlin

These seemingly disconnected events may be part of a pattern of distractions or probing attacks to assess enemy vulnerability and leave Russian commanders guessing ahead of a counteroffensive.

War, for many Russians, is being driven ever closer to home.

Attacks on Russian territory are also increasing pressure on the Kremlin. One of Moscow’s justifications for the invasion was national security – but before the war, life was calm and peaceful in places like Belgorod and other regions near the Ukrainian border — not to mention inside Moscow itself.

The events of the last month have revealed that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has had the opposite effect of what he had promised. War, for many Russians, is now coming home.

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Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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