Russia on fire: Is Ukraine giving Moscow a taste of its own medicine?

Russia on fire: Is Ukraine giving Moscow a taste of its own medicine?
An ammunition depot in Belgorod caught fire on April 27. / Fire in Belgorod - Taken by Illia Ponoramarenko
By Dominic Culverwell in Berlin, Theo Normanton in Moscow April 29, 2022

A decade-long secret war is reaching its boiling point as mysterious explosions ripple throughout the Russian Federation.

A series of fires this week have caused speculation that pro-Ukrainian saboteurs are operating in Russia. In extraordinary circumstances, an ammunition depot in Belgorod caught fire on April 27, days after a massive explosion at an oil facility and armoury in Bryansk and an airbase in Ussuriysk, Russia’s Far East, on April 25. With no one claiming responsibility, fingers point in all directions and the cause of the fires continues to remain undetermined. 

Hours after the Bryansk fire, Russian forces announced they had shot down Ukrainian drones in the neighbouring Kursk region, which was enough proof for some that Kyiv had orchestrated a drone strike on the Bryansk depots. Reports from Belgorod also mentioned Russian air defence systems being active, suggesting they had failed to hit a Ukrainian drone or missile. Others claimed it was a false flag operation due to warnings from Ukrainian journalists days before that Russia was collecting downed Ukrainian drones in those regions to stage an attack. 

However, the fire in Ussuriysk thousands of kilometres from Ukraine's border and the discovery of a mine by a railway track in Bryansk the following day have added credibility to the theory that there are saboteurs carrying out attacks on the ground in Russia. The mine was identified as an inert Soviet SZ-6 demolition charge by the Twitter account “Ukraine Weapons Tracker”. Although inactive, the account believes it was placed there “as a warning” from pro-Ukrainian saboteurs.

Taken from Ukraine Weapons Tracker Twitter

As such, Ukraine may be giving Moscow a taste of its own medicine. Russian saboteurs and secret agents have carried out similar actions in the shadows of Central and Eastern Europe for over a decade, resulting in the destruction of numerous storage facilities across the continent.

Europe’s exploding depots

The 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and the 2014 War in Donbas brought armed conflict closer to the European Union and with it a new underground war orchestrated by Russia.

Between 2011 and 2020, Bulgaria suffered a series of four peculiar explosions at ammunition depots. The stored weapons were destined for Ukraine and Georgia and belonged to Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, who had miraculously survived a poisoning attempt in 2015. Sofia refrained from accusations for years. However, that changed on April 28, 2021 amidst worsening EU relations with the Kremlin after several successful and unsuccessful assassination attempts on EU soil. Siyka Mileva, the spokesperson for Bulgaria’s prosecution, noted that six Russian suspects had been present in Bulgaria at each of the four explosions and accused them of destroying the armouries, according to the independent news site Meduza.

“It was established during the investigation that six Russian citizens spent time on the Republic of Bulgaria’s territory around the dates of the explosions,” said Mileva. “The evidence gathered leads to the highly reliable conclusion that the aim of the actions of the Russian citizens was to stop the delivery [of munitions to Georgia and Ukraine].”

According to Bulgarian officials, the six suspects were likely members of the secretive Unit 29155 of the Russian military intelligence agency GRU and connected them to the attempted murder of Emilian Gebrev in 2015. This was further corroborated by the investigative platform Bellingcat, which also linked the unit to the infamous poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal in 2018. 

Moreover, a separate investigation determined that Unit 29155 was also the cause of several explosions at arms depots in Czechia in 2014 which killed two people. The warehouses also held weapons belonging to Emilian Gebrev destined for Ukraine. After claiming there was “irrefutable evidence” that the unit was involved, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš expelled 18 diplomats from Prague on April 17, 2021 and called for the arrest of two suspected GRU agents who were revealed to be the same two men involved in the Skripal assassination attempt. 

Extensive evidence was collected over several years in Bulgaria and Czechia before Russia was accused of any wrongdoing. In the meantime, Ukraine continued to suffer as the War in Donbas was protracted. By 2017, the intensity of the conflict had simmered down and the regions outside of Donbas and the occupied Crimea looked to be void of any conflict. 

However, over a short period, intense explosions erupted at multiple ammunition storage facilities across the country. One particular inferno at a munitions depot in Kalynivka, central Ukraine, blew up $800mn worth of artillery and forced 30,000 people to evacuate on April 26, 2017. Some blamed the fire on the improper storage of weapons, but the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) quickly claimed “subversive activity” was responsible for the incident, a thinly veiled accusation at Russia.

Moreover, the sheer number of fires at ammunition depots suggested that foul play was at work. Kyiv did not specifically blame any one agency, but instead strongly alluded to the incidents being carried out by Russian saboteurs, which Moscow denied. Several months before the explosion in Kalynivka, Ukraine's military prosecutor Anatoly Matios blamed saboteurs for another fire at an arsenal in Balakleya containing 138,000 tonnes of ammunition. 

"According to preliminary data ... as a result of sabotage…fire and explosions caused the detonation of ammunition at several sites storing rockets and artillery weapons," Matios wrote on Facebook.

Balakleya fire

Russian Response

So far, there is no conclusive evidence to prove the recent fires in Russia were an act of sabotage, but Russian opposition politician Leonid Volkov certainly thinks it is a plausible explanation. 

“Russia is bombing fuel depots in Ukraine in order to cut off the supply lines to Ukrainian soldiers and to limit the provision of fuel and other supplies to parts of Ukraine,” Volkov said after the Bryansk explosion. “It is reasonable and logical that Ukraine should do the same thing”.

The general consensus on social media also leans towards Ukrainian saboteurs. Yet this is in stark contrast to Russian officials, who called the fires in Bryansk, Belgorod and Ussuriysk accidents or refrained from mentioning the cause at all. Volkov believes that the Russian authorities have to do this in order to quash speculation that the war is not going to plan. The lack of insight into the fires could signify that Moscow is apprehensive about losing control over its narrative. Therefore Russian state media focused on apparent domestic victories from those dates instead.

On the same day as the Belgorod explosion, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced the arrest of two “Russian sympathisers of Ukrainian Nazism” who had allegedly been collecting data about Russian troops. 

"The FSB unit in Belgorod has detained two Russian sympathisers of Ukrainian Nazism for plotting a public transport attack in the region," the FSB’s Public Relations Centre told Russian state media TASS on April 27. 

Similarly, the FSB also declared they had foiled an attempt to assassinate Russian TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov hours after the fire in Bryansk. The FSB published several photos allegedly showing Nazi paraphernalia belonging to the six detained men, but quickly received backlash after accusations they had staged the photograph. One bizarre photo showed the computer game “Sims 3” amongst the contraband, with analysts speculating that FSB officers had misunderstood the order and meant to place three mobile phone SIM cards instead. 

Taken from Igor Sushko Twitter

As such, claims of pro-Ukrainian saboteurs operating in Russia still remain unverified. However, known saboteur groups working in Belarus against Moscow and Minsk's military actions, such as the Belarusian Cyber-Partisans and the  “Community of Belarusian Railway Workers”, have caused concern for President Lukashenko, Putin’s closest ally. Therefore the Russian leader may be watching these incidents with a cautious eye. 

Although recent polls indicate that a large number of Russians are in favour of the invasion, the thousands arrested for protesting certainly show that there is strong Ukrainian support as well. As the war drags on longer than expected and the number of Russian bodies piles up, the apparent acts of sabotage may indicate that opposition forces are banding together. If that is the case, we can expect more acts of resistance and the formation of saboteur groups akin to the ones in Belarus.