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Putin Defectors Say They've Seized Belgorod Towns, Vow to ...

The Freedom of Russia Legion aims "to liberate Russia from Putinism," Ilya Ponomarev, an exiled Russian politician, told Newsweek.

Russian fighters serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces say they have seized settlements in the Belgorod region, located near to the Ukrainian border.

The Freedom of Russia Legion—formed weeks after Russia's invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022—aims "to liberate Russia from Putinism," Ilya Ponomarev, an exiled Russian politician, who says he is political representative for the group of fighters, told Newsweek on Monday of the latest developments.

The Legion was declared a terrorist organization by Russia's Supreme Court in March. The group claimed on its social media channels on Monday that it had, alongside the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), "completely liberated" the settlement of Kozinka in Belgorod, and that its units had entered Graivoron.

 Freedom of Russia Legion
Tikhiy, 41-year-old, a Russian who joined the Freedom of Russia Legion to fight on the side of Ukraine, wears the patch of the Freedom of Russia Legion in Dolyna, eastern Ukraine on December 26, 2022. Freedom of Russia Legion is a Foreign volunteer legion formed in March 2022 with defectors from the Russian Armed Forces, Russian and Belarusian volunteers. AMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images

Ponomarev, who was the only member of the Russian parliament to vote against Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, told Newsweek that the legion and RVC had "liberated" both Kozinka and Graivoron.

Belgorod Regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov announced that "a sabotage and reconnaissance group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine" had entered the territory of Graivoron.

"The armed forces of the Russian Federation, together with the border service, the Russian Guard and [Russia's Federal Security Service] the FSB, are taking the necessary measures to eliminate the enemy. I will report the details," he said on his Telegram channel.

Ukrainian news outlets reported Monday that a message was broadcast on radio stations saying that Belgorod will soon "become free."

The RVC said on its Telegram channel that its fighters were in Russia, publishing a short clip showing members standing in front of road signs in the Belgorod region.

The Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine confirmed that RVC and Legion fighters entered the Belgorod region, saying they were carrying out an operation to create "a security zone to protect civilian Ukrainians."

"The events in the Belgorod region and other border areas are the result of a full-scale invasion and aggressive war of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's Russia against Ukraine. Yes, citizens of the Russian Federation, namely the forces of the [RVC] and the Legion took responsibility for these events," said Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine's military intelligence agency GUR.

"I think that we can only congratulate the decisive actions of the opposition-minded citizens of Russia, who are ready for an armed struggle against the criminal regime of Putin," he continued.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that Putin is aware of an attempt by a "Ukrainian sabotage group" to break through into the Belgorod region.

"Work is underway to squeeze them out of Russian territory and destroy this sabotage group," Peskov said.

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry via email for comment.

Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about the Russia-Ukraine war? Let us know via

Update 5/22/23 at 9:21 a.m. ET: This article has been updated with further information.

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