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A sign for Bryansk on the side of a road entering the region, which borders Ukraine, on March 2.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The men in the video look suspiciously tidy for a sabotage unit, their uniforms spotless despite purportedly having staged a cross-border raid into Russia. There is copious yellow tape on their uniforms and assault rifles to identify them as Ukrainian fighters, perhaps far more than is safe or necessary.

The daring thrust into the Bryansk region of western Russia – by men who identified themselves as members of the Russian Volunteer Corps, “a liberating army to our homeland” – could go down in history as a bizarre footnote to this war or the moment Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine finally boomeranged onto his own country’s soil.

Or, amid warnings from Ukrainian officials that the attack on Bryansk may have been a false-flag operation, it may be used by Mr. Putin to justify whatever he does next.

Two videos appeared online early Thursday showing white-clad fighters standing outside a post office and a nursing station in the border village of Lyubechanye. In addition to their automatic rifles, the men are carrying flags of the Russian Volunteer Corps, a group of ethnic Russians who have been fighting on the Ukrainian side since the start of a proxy conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region nine years ago that has since escalated into full-scale war.

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Mr. Putin called an emergency meeting of Russia’s National Security Council after the incident and, within hours, went on national television to denounce the “terrorist” attack, which he said was aimed at destroying Russia’s language and culture. “They won’t achieve anything. We will crush them,” he vowed.

Russian media said the fighters, who were described in domestic reports as a unit of 40 to 50 Ukrainian nationalists, had fired at civilians, killing at least two people and injuring an 11-year-old boy – something the fighters had explicitly vowed not to do. “We don’t fight civilians, we don’t kill the unarmed. Keep that in mind,” one says in the video filmed outside the nursing station.

Though the fighter doesn’t give his name, he has been identified by independent Russian media outlets as Denis Kapustin, a prominent far-right figure who in the past has admitted to co-operating with Russia’s security services.

The revelation that the attackers were indeed ethnic Russians made the entire episode even murkier. The Ukrainian government said it had nothing to do with the operation in Bryansk.

“The story about the Ukrainian sabotage group in Russia is a classic deliberate provocation. Russia wants to scare its people to justify the attack on another country and the growing poverty after the year of war,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on Twitter. “The partisan movement in Russia is getting stronger and more aggressive. Fear your partisans,” he added.

After the Bryansk videos were posted, there were calls for Mr. Putin to take swift action to punish Ukraine. Though Russia has sent hundreds of thousands of troops into Ukraine over the past year, the Kremlin still calls it a “special military operation,” and Mr. Putin has yet to formally declare war. Doing so would allow the Kremlin to potentially conscript millions more men and fully militarize the country’s economy.

“We need to take the initiative into our own hands and move from the special military operation to a full-fledged war against the terrorist regime that has occupied Ukraine,” Sergey Markov, a hawkish former Kremlin adviser, wrote on his Telegram channel. “Military mobilization of the economy, society and the state is necessary.”

The episode in Bryansk came as Russia’s Wagner Group, a mercenary force that has been fighting alongside the regular Russian army in Ukraine, claimed it was approaching the centre of Bakhmut, a key transportation hub in the Donbas region. Capturing Bakhmut, the scene of seven months of close-quarters fighting, would be a symbolic victory for Russian forces, albeit one that has come at an extremely high price, with casualties estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin posted a photograph Thursday of four armed men waving Wagner’s black flag from atop a partially destroyed building in what Mr. Prigozhin said was “practically the centre” of Bakhmut, a shattered city that was home to 70,000 people before the war. On Feb. 22, Mr. Prigozhin posted a photo of dozens of dead bodies, claiming they were Wagner fighters who had died during the previous day’s fighting.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held an unscheduled meeting Thursday on the sidelines of a G20 gathering in New Delhi. It was their first face-to-face encounter since the start of the war on Feb. 24 of last year.

The State Department said Mr. Blinken told Mr. Lavrov that the United States, which along with its allies has provided Ukraine with substantial military and financial aid since the start of the conflict, would support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

He also told Mr. Lavrov that Russia should rejoin the New START nuclear-arms reduction treaty. Mr. Putin announced last month that Russia was suspending its participation in the agreement – which set caps on the number of nuclear weapons the two Cold War superpowers could possess and allowed for mutual inspections – in response to the West’s backing of Ukraine.

Russia’s official TASS news service said the two men had met at Mr. Blinken’s request. The conversation reportedly lasted less than 10 minutes.