The Freedom for Russia Legion – a group that has claimed responsibility for an apparent incursion inside Russian territory – has one ambition. As “Caesar” says in a video statement he recorded with his comrades before joining a cross-border raid into his motherland: “Russia will be free.”
The group numbers a few hundred of diehard, battle-hardened Russian volunteers fighting their own people as part of the Ukrainian armed forces. Caesar is a former teacher, a father and has a wife living in Kyiv. He told CNN last year that he had dedicated his life to toppling Russian President Vladimir Putin and marching into Red Square and the Kremlin itself.
Caesar is a devoted member of the Orthodox Church and is nostalgic for the Tsarist era that predated the Soviet Union. His unit is well-equipped with modern armored vehicles, gunsights and the latest automatic weapons.
Previously engaged in bitter fighting south of Bakhmut, the Freedom for Russia Legion now claims to have crossed into Russia itself and, as of late afternoon on Monday, was continuing combat operations against Russian forces in areas close to the frontier.
In a Telegram post, the group said it had “liberated” a settlement in Russia's Belgorod region.
Ukrainian officials acknowledged that the unit crossed into Russia, but insist that members of the legion were operating independently as "Russian citizens."
The Legionnaires themselves have admitted that they’re often treated with suspicion by Ukrainian soldiers but hope to win them over with gallantry on the battlefield.
Their apparent incursion along a border that’s frequently used by Russian mortar teams and artillery as a firebase for attacks inside Ukraine will help further cement their reputation.
It also serves as part of ongoing psychological operations intended to undermine support for the war in Russia and the fighting spirit of Russian soldiers themselves – signaling that they could be attacked at any time and even by their own countrymen.