Who is the oligarch stealing Putin's spotlight in Ukraine? 4:05

(CNN) -- Ukraine opened a new front in its battle to oust the Russian invader, this time in Russia. But she is strangely shy about admitting that she has sent troops, fired artillery and flown drones into her neighbor's territory.

Operations by Russian citizens carrying Ukrainian military ID, wearing Ukrainian uniforms and attacking from Ukraine remain officially opaque. It is Kyiv's contribution to what has been called "hybrid warfare" in the "grey zone" of contemporary conflict.

The two terms gave rise to books and a tsunami of opinions from an army of experts when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014.

At that time, "little green men" appeared in Crimea dressed in peculiar bicolor uniforms of sport hunters and Russian military attire.

When it was suggested that maybe, just maybe, these men were actually Russian soldiers, Vladimir Putin joked: "You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform."


Moscow's official version was that the men who raised the Russian flag over Simferopol and stormed Crimea's local parliament were "self-defense units" of pro-Russian Ukrainians eager to submit their territory to Moscow's rule.

By the time Moscow admitted that its troops were in fact in Ukraine, a large part of the 14-year-old former Soviet nation was under Putin's control.

Now, on a small scale, Ukraine is adapting those same tactics to try to achieve strategic effect.

The Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom Legion for Russia — which report to Ukraine's Defense Intelligence structure — have been making brief cross-border incursions into Russia.

Their main objective? Destabilization.

Fighters from the Russian Volunteer Corps and the allied group Freedom Legion of Russia next to an armored personnel carrier seized on May 24, 2023.
(Credit: Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

Although the terminology and methods have evolved, the tactic is nothing new. Apart from Russia, South African apartheid regimes used similar techniques during the 1970s and 1980s, attacking the border states of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Pretoria sent troops on cross-border raids to destabilize independent African nations opposed to its racist regime. They often posed as local liberation fighters in classic "false flag" attacks on civilians, attempting to undermine support for liberation movements.

Frequently, these groups were made up of fighters from Angola or Zimbabwe, to add "authenticity" to atrocities they hoped to attribute to others.

The long-term goal—and often the result—was to keep the nations that supported South Africa's internal liberation struggle in permanent imbalance.

The reaction in Russia

In Ukraine, it is in Kyiv's interest for the Russians to invade Russia on its behalf.

Tactical results may be limited. Brief incursions into small border towns. But the desired destabilizing effect is achieved in Russia.

Local television has been filled with terrified reports from local journalists about artillery attacks on Russian cities.

The governor of Belgorod — the region hardest hit by Ukraine's latest campaign — has evacuated hundreds of civilians, maintained personal phone contact with Putin and has already received a prize for valor for his efforts.

Meanwhile, the Freedom Legion for Russia is posting ads on its Telegram channel for drone pilots to join its ranks.

It may, or may not, be behind the growing number of drone strikes that have hit Russian territory, from the Kremlin and Moscow suburbs favored by Putin's allies, to the cities of Kursk, Smelensk and Krasnador.

The aim is to make the attacks inside Russia appear to have an important Russian flavor, to suggest that more Russians are listening to the "cry for freedom" of dissidents and joining an internal effort to oust Putin.

Ukraine claims war is approaching Russians 2:02

Both the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom Legion for Russia claim to have followers in their home country.

That may be the case. Someone unfurled the blue and white flag of the Russian opposition movement over Moscow last week. Someone helps by flying, or training, drones over Russian targets.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the more Russians think that their compatriots are involved in attacking the Russian regime, the better. Doubt itself is destabilizing.

Judging by the rhetoric coming from Russia, it's working.

At the opening of a meeting with his Security Council on Friday, Putin said "bad guys" must be prevented from destabilizing Russia.

He said the council would focus on ensuring internal political security, taking into account the intensification of the enemy's efforts "to stir up the situation inside the Russian Federation."

"We must make every effort not to allow them to do so under any circumstances," Putin added.

War at home

Ukraine could not ask for a greater ally in this strategy than Yezgeny Prigozhin, the vocal leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner.

"Wagner PMC wants at least a month of recovery, as it has been hard work, a hard year (...). And then the next skirmishes will come, I think, this time most likely on Russian territory," he said after the raids and drone strikes against Russia.

As an extra bonus for Kyiv, Prigozhin lashed out at the Russian military leadership. The Russian chain of command was "controlled by clowns who only treat men as cannon fodder," he said, adding: "then we will not be part of this chain."

On the drone strikes on Moscow last week, he told Russian generals: "Stinky animals, what are they about? They're pigs! Lift the c****of the offices in which you have been put to defend this country."

Dmitry Medvedev, a close ally of Putin, was equally shocked by the extent of the war in Russia. He reacted with something close to hysteria.

"It is clear what response is needed: they must be annihilated, not only on a personal basis, but destroyed in the hornet's nest itself. The regime that has developed in Ukraine must be exterminated," Medvedev said.

He may sound like a Nazi, but his words contained sinister echoes of the genocidal Holodomor of the 1930s, when under the Soviet Union an estimated three million Ukrainians died of starvation, middle-class farmers were eradicated and the Ukrainian language banned.

But these fulminations may not impress ordinary Russians.

At least 484 children have died in Russia's war in Ukraine 3:20

The governor of Belgorod claims dozens of strikes hit border districts inside Russia over the past day.

In a lengthy post on his Telegram channel, Vyacheslav Gladkov said much of the incoming fire was artillery and mortars on border districts. He added that roads, property and vehicles had been damaged, and 12 people had been injured in 24 hours in the border town of Shebekino.

A woman who spoke to a pro-Russian Telegram channel said Shebekino was "on fire, the battles there continue," adding: "We have fled the city."

"There are very few of ours there. The previous days, with all the bombings, there was almost no response, no military (Russian). We were left alone," the unidentified woman said. CNN has not been able to verify its version of events.

But their opinions could be extended. And Russia's response to the campaign on its soil may destabilize its military campaign in Ukraine and, with it, domestic politics.

War in UkraineRussian News