President Joe Biden’s administration and the U.S. Department of Defense are investigating whether U.S. equipment was used during a cross-border raid into Russia earlier this week.
On Monday, a pair of paramilitary groups crossed the border from Ukraine into Russia’s western Belgorod region to sow chaos inside Russia’s borders. The paramilitary fighters identified themselves as members of Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, two groups of self-described Russian nationals who say they oppose the current government under Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian officials have claimed to have repelled the apparent rebel groups.
Unverified photos and videos posted on social media showed the paramilitary forces appearing to use several HMMWVs (“Humvees”) and MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which are produced by American companies General Motors and Navistar Defense, respectively. Russian state-owned media outlets also shared images purporting to show Humvees captured during the fighting in Belgorod.
In an interview with the Financial Times, the leader of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Denis Nikitin, claimed his organization did indeed possess Humvees and MaxxPros but declined to say how they gained possession of the vehicles.
The appearance of U.S. support for an attack inside Russia risks further straining relations between the two countries.
Biden Admin ‘Skeptical’ at First
On Tuesday, in one of the Biden administration’s earliest responses to allegations U.S. equipment was used in the cross-border raid into Russia, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said, “We’ve seen a lot of reports on social media, and fuzzy pictures on social media, and a lot of kind of armchair intelligence analysts making claims. We’re skeptical that they are – that they are accurate.”
In a press briefing the next day, Miller changed his tune slightly.
“We are looking into the reports. We’ve obviously seen the reports by media organizations over the last 24 hours or so,” Miller said Wednesday. “As a general policy matter, we have been clear that we don’t–we don’t support the use of U.S.-made equipment being used for attacks inside of Russia, and we’re looking into the reports. But we have not reached any conclusions at this time.”
“I wouldn’t want to prejudge either the outcome or when we’ll reach that outcome other than to say we’re looking into it now and don’t yet have any verified conclusions,” he added.
Pentagon spokesman and Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder addressed reports of U.S. equipment being used in the recent Belgorod incursion during a Tuesday press briefing.
“We’ve seen those reports, something that we obviously continue to monitor very closely,” Ryder said. “I will say that we can confirm that the U.S. government has not approved any third-party transfers of equipment to paramilitary organizations outside the Ukrainian Armed Forces, nor has the Ukrainian government requested any such transfers. So again, it’s something we’ll keep a close eye on.”
Escalation Between US and Russia
The United States has gradually provided Ukrainian forces with more powerful weapons over the course of the war with Russia, at times seeking assurances that certain weapons would only be used inside Ukraine’s borders.
Last May, as his administration prepared to approve transfers of advanced M142 HIMARS rocket launchers to Ukraine, Biden told reporters, “We’re not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that can strike into Russia.”
Biden ruled out transferring F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine in January of this year but reversed course after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the G-7 summit of world leaders in Hiroshima, Japan, over the weekend. After relenting to Zelenskyy’s requests for fighter jets, Biden said, “I have a flat assurance from Zelenskyy that they will not use [the F-16s] to go on and move into Russian geographic territory.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Biden’s decision to approve transfers of F-16s to Ukraine represents an “escalation scenario” in the conflict. Russian Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov shared similar comments about an escalating conflict between Russia and the United States when Belgorod came under attack mere hours after the U.S. approved the F-16 transfers.
“It is no secret that this equipment is being used against our own military,” Peskov told reporters this week when asked about the Belgorod attack. “And it is no secret for us that the direct and indirect involvement of Western countries in this conflict is growing by the day. We are drawing the appropriate conclusions.”
Russian officials have alleged the incursion inside Belgorod harmed Russian civilians and have characterized the assault as an act of terrorism. While attackers have described themselves as Russian rebels, several Russian officials have insisted they are, in fact, Ukrainian militants.
“There are many ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, but still, [the saboteurs that intruded into Russian territory] are Ukrainian militants,” Peskov told reporters on Tuesday.