For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, the ongoing incursion by exiled Russian revolutionary groups in the Belgorod region of Russia has the distinctive look and feel of an episode of the classic espionage television show, “Mission: Impossible.” Tom Cruise may not star in this modern-day spinoff, but in terms of box-office draw, the two purportedly responsible paramilitary groups — Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps — are magnificently capturing the full attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the Belgorod region governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Jan. 24, 2023. Fighting has occurred in Russia's border region of Belgorod. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Hillary Clinton once wrote, “It takes a village,” and apparently the two pro-Ukrainian Russian groups did just that. Kozinka, a small Russian border hamlet located a stone’s throw from Ukraine, was “completely liberated,” according to their commanders. Not exactly the infamous “reset button” message that Clinton once awkwardly gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2009, yet the conquering of the village is precisely the “no-quarter” pronouncement that Russians need to hear as Putin’s “special military operation” enters its 16th month.

Bakhmut fell this past weekend while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was in Hiroshima, Japan, attending the G7 summit, but it is Putin and his regime who are now under immense pressure to account for an open insurrection in Belgorod. Humiliating images of invading tanks and videos of commandeered and BTR 82As are not exactly the kind of images Putin and the Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin hoped to see on Monday evening TV screens in Moscow, after the man known as “Putin’s chef’ planted Russian and Wagner flags on Saturday declaring victory.

Zelenskyy may or may not have authorized a real-life version of the classic television series’ lead character, Jim Phelps, to undertake the “mission.” The Ukrainian president, through adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, adamantly denied any responsibility. But then, that was always the Cold War gist of “Mission: Impossible.” Zelenskyy, if he was involved (wink, wink), was always going to “disavow any knowledge.”

Putin, however, has nowhere to hide. Moreover, the early reviews on Ukrainian social media exposing him are brutal. One meme, in particular, is biting. Published by The Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security of Ukraine, an official government account, it reads as follows: The first panel shows Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Russian Minister Sergei Shoigu announcing to Putin that “Russians are advancing.” The next image shows Putin smiling, saying, “Great news.” Then, with Gerasimov’s and Shoigu’s heads tilted down, the third reads, “Just not our Russians.”


Even worse for Putin than the joke at his expense is the stark, inconvenient truth underpinning the meme. Regardless to the extent that Ukraine has aided the cross-border machinations of the two Russian rebel factions, the forces involved are ethnic Russians. Opposition forces, unless state sanctioned as “useful idiots,” such as Prigozhin and his Wagner Group, are harshly suppressed; Putin and his Federal Security Service view them as existential threats. Journalists have been murdered — 83 since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists — or routinely imprisoned, including Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter based in Moscow who was working for The Wall Street Journal.

Putin consistently has tried to play an impossible “there is nothing to see here” game over Ukraine as Russian casualties — upwards of 100,000 dead and wounded, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby — and battlefield reversals mount. Nothing could be worse for his regime’s continued stability, and perhaps its survival, were it to become widely known in Russia that this is an ongoing, armed insurrection. In this regard alone, Zelenskyy’s power move in Belgorod (again, if he was behind it), was cunningly masterful and “Mission: Impossible”-worthy. 

For now, to forestall any widespread insurrection narrative, Moscow is reduced to falsely claiming Ukrainian “saboteurs” are behind the attacks in Belgorod. Yet, like the burning fuse in the opening sequences of “Mission: Impossible,” Zelenskyy, either as a willing partner or simply agreeing to look the other way, has lit a charge under Putin’s Kremlin that is threatening to go off at any time.

The game is fully afoot and developing inside Russia — and, as with the Cold War-era television series  — as the “reveal” begins to evolve, the consequences of Kyiv’s “assignment” that the two Russian rebel groups chose to “accept” are rapidly becoming far-reaching. It’s potentially game-changing. Fearing loss of control of tactical nukes to the Russian revolutionaries, Putin ordered their removal from a military facility in Belgorod known as No. 25624.

In addition to upstaging the fall of Bakhmut to Prigozhin — or mainly, its rubble; the city has been destroyed by street-to-street fighting — Ukraine, to whatever extent Kyiv is involved in this cross-border incident, also militarily wins because the uprising in Belgorod forces the Kremlin to relocate Russian military troops held in reserve or needed in Donbas and/or Crimea. Belgorod Mayor Vyacheslav Gladkov confirmed on Telegram that the “Russian army, border guards, presidential guards and the FSB security service” are all being drawn into putting down the incursion.  

If this were in actuality a Ukrainian “Mission: Impossible,” Putin would be wise to remember one other constant from the espionage series, especially in the earlier episodes: The fuse that was lit nearly always resulted in the mission’s target being “neutralized” by their bosses, henchmen or rivals. To that end, Zelenskyy’s team may have just pulled off the impossible — and helped open a window in the Kremlin.

Mark Toth (@MCTothSTL) writes on national security and foreign policy. He was formerly an economist and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. A former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, he has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world.

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