TThe war has become impossible to ignore in Belgorod, in southern Russia, just a few miles from the Ukrainian border. Russian soldiers retreat from Ukrainian counterattack now roam the streets. Air defense rumbles overhead several times a day. The city is filled with refugees again. And on the border, Russian and Ukrainian soldiers stand in full view of each other.
Three Russian soldiers from Ossetia wander the unfamiliar streets past the majestic Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior late one evening. They stagger on their feet, perhaps drunk or tired. And they’re looking for a place to eat.
Since February, they say, they fought in Ukraine as part of the invasion forces. They were stationed in the village of Velikiye Prohody, north of Kharkivwhen the urgent signal came last week to run back to Russia.
“What can we say? An order is an order. We had no choice,” says one of them in a hat with the letter Z. tactical symbol adopted as a patriotic emblem of support for the war in Russia..
When the Russian front in Kharkov collapsed and Ukrainians who chose the side of Russia fled abroada gloomy thought flashed through the minds of ordinary people here: so that the war would not go over to Russia.
When asked where they are going next, the soldiers answer that they do not know. But it’s likely, they think, that they’ll be sent back south to “defend the frontier.”
The next day, about 400 National Guard troops reinforce the position of the Russian border guards. Even there, according to an activist present, the soldiers were reconsidering their values. In sight are Ukrainian troops on the other side in a tense confrontation.
“How the hell did this happen?” – said one border guard to another, they remember two people who were there.
in Belgorod, signals of war and tension on display, even if most people think the conflict is unlikely to escalate. Oleg, a restaurateur originally from Ukraine, wears a shirt that says “Born in Kharkiv” and has bought plywood boards in case he needs to close the windows of his restaurant.
His business partner Denis built a bomb shelter in his backyard and evacuated his grandmother from a Russian-controlled city in the country’s east. Ukraine now at the forefront of the conflict.
Denis says he hopes the tension will subside. But they also take precautions. “No one expects him to come here,” says Oleg. “But we must be ready.
In Belgorod’s central market, soldiers stock up for the winter, signaling that the war in Russia could drag on for months or even longer.
– Where are the balaclavas? shouts one of them, rummaging through one of several stalls selling camouflage hats, jackets, thermal underwear and other cold-weather gear.
“Dozens of boys come every day, there are so many of them now [since the counteroffensive]”, says Marina, who sells camouflage at the market. “Everyone has such gloomy faces. Now it’s more stressful.
“I see them buying these things and I wonder why they don’t have [them]she also says, adding that the troops are buying basic food and cooking supplies that she expected to be provided by the army.
An elderly woman in the market is crying on one of their shoulders. “Please, please help us,” she sobs emotionally. The men come up and pat the soldiers on the back. An explosion is heard above. “Air defense,” mutters one man.
“You feel [the war] you don’t feel it here in other cities,” says Andrei Borzikh, a bankruptcy lawyer who crowdfunds thermal imaging sights and other equipment for the Russian army. In the car, he wears a helmet and body armor. — You hear.
Ukraine has not given any indication that it intends to cross the border or do anything more than return territory occupied by Russia. But the very idea of the Kremlin about a quick victorious war, boomeranging back across the border into Russia, speaks of realities. the defeat suffered by his troops in the last days.
“There were some miscalculations anyway — maybe tactical, maybe strategic,” says Borzikh. “The fact that Russia thought she was there forever was obvious.”
Like other supporters of the Russian army, he says recent defeats should be attributed to Western support for Ukraine. “Russia is now in conflict with a third of the world community,” he says.
On a recent weekday, a blue-uniformed security officer holds a Kalashnikov assault rifle near the red-brick facade of Lyceum No. 9 on Central Narodny Boulevard. An hour earlier, there were reports that the city was undergoing a planned evacuation of local schools and large shopping centers, apparently in case of shelling or a bomb threat.
The governor of the Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, issued an order on Monday requiring local authorities to check their bomb shelters. Schools near the border are temporarily closed. An online video shows volunteers cutting trees to build fortifications in wooded areas south of the city.
People here now understand that the war is not going very well. In a series of interviews, locals describe a sense of shock in the early days of the war, followed by an increase in patriotic sentiment accompanied by propaganda symbols such as the popular letter Z pasted on cars and buildings.
Now many of them are gone as Belgorod adjusts to a long-term conflict that has come much closer than they ever expected.
As in many Russian cities, there is almost no anti-war activity here. Ilya Kostyukov, 19, an opposition activist and founder of the Belgorod Anti-War Committee, says he is focused on getting people opposed to the conflict to speak out and that trying to convince war supporters to change their minds is “pointless.”
Asked about the direct effects of the war on Belgorod residents, he points to the arrival of refugees and the recent power outage caused by an explosion at a nearby power plant.
The soldiers also became rowdy at the karaoke cafe where he works at the bar. According to him, fights break out regularly. One group of soldiers refused to pay their bill and then pointed a gun at the bouncer.
But for the most part, he says, Belgorod is in a state of apathy. “It seems to us that no one cares until it affects them personally. Until someone brings a coffin to your house, nobody cares.”
Some families are separated by a border. Irina, a travel agent, lives with her daughter in her native Belgorod. But her ex-husband and the father of her child lives in Kharkov.
“Our child is divided between two countries,” she says in a strained voice. “Absolutely equal. It doesn’t matter what happens.”
Two weeks ago, she says, her ex-husband told her that he had been drafted into the army in Ukraine. He was ready to serve because he considered it his patriotic duty. She is afraid that he will be killed.
“I went a little crazy and said some really mean things,” she says of their last conversation. “Anything can happen. I wanted to save the father of my child.
“He is a citizen of Ukraine and he is doing his duty to his country – and trying to do his duty to his family.”
In the evenings, Yuliya Nemchinova, a volunteer delivering aid to people who have recently arrived in Belgorod from Ukraine, walks up to a small shipping container in the industrial sector, which she calls a “warehouse.” Inside are crackers and cookies, diapers, tampons, tea and coffee, and dozens of other foods that don’t go bad in either heat or cold.
Her phone has a spreadsheet with nearly 1,200 entries from arriving families requesting essentials. She estimates that 6,000 people need it. According to her, there were almost two dozen people in only one apartment. “Belgorod is full.”
According to her, almost 85% of recent arrivals from Ukraine want to stay close to the border. This led to many refusing to go to government refugee camps along the border, from where they were later sent on to Russia.
Even among Putin’s supporters, there is a sense that Russia is losing hearts and minds in Ukraine.
At the aid distribution center, openly pro-Kremlin Ukrainians are asking why they weren’t alerted to the counteroffensive and didn’t get more help from the government after they arrived in Russia.
“We feel homeless and as if no one needs us,” says one pro-Russian woman who fled occupied Kupyansk, a city recently taken by the Ukrainian army.
As promised to all who fled the war to Russia, she received 10,000 rubles (£143) from the government. “We got our 10,000 rubles, but my house was there and I left everything and became homeless,” she says.
One Russian activist who regularly traveled to occupied Ukraine to evacuate people says he was overwhelmed by the lack of investment in infrastructure. He recalls the feeling of the presence of a witness to the “apocalypse”, standing at an empty crossroads in Kupyansk.
He brought 3.5 tons of food and medicine to the orphanage where the children remained. Elsewhere, they simply traveled through small villages to deliver food and medicine to the locals, often the elderly, who were left behind.
In Volchansk, he said, there was no electricity or electricity for several months. “I think this is one of the failures of the Russian army – they did not bring enough benefits. This is how people welcomed the arrival of Ukrainian troops,” he says.