A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 18, 2024

Belgorod Oblast Is First Russia Area To Experience War As Ukraine Is

There is not a lot of sympathy for Belgorod's Russian citizens, given what Ukraine has had to endure for the past two-plus years. JL 

Valerie Hopkins reports in The New york Times:

Belgorod's 340,000 residents, who live in range of Ukrainian artillery, say they feel like they are under attack. Ukraine can fire its own weapons across the border but maintains that it aims at only military targets. Last month, Washington ended its ban on Ukrainian forces using American weapons to hit inside Russia. At least 190 people have died in the Belgorod region since the war started. Belgorod and its surrounding region hear air raid sirens and explosions multiple times daily, and most locals take the risks seriously.

As Alina waited for the bus that would take her to her family’s weekend house outside Belgorod, she made sure to wait deep inside the concrete shelter built early this year around the stop.

It had been nearly six months since she and her 8-year-old brother, Artem, were almost injured in an attack on Belgorod’s central square, the day before New Year’s Eve, when Alina, 14, had taken him ice skating.

“We were lying down, covering our heads with our hands, opening our mouths slightly and just lying on the floor for a long time,” she said, describing how they hid on the kitchen floor of a restaurant just off the square.

“It was very scary, but I’m used to it by now,” she added. “And I know what to do in such situations.” In the months that followed, she had panic attacks and suffered from anxiety, said her mother, Nataliya, who like several others interviewed for this article asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the authorities.

In Moscow, another summer has set in, and life is much the same there as it was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But Belgorod, 25 miles from the border and once deeply tied to the Ukrainians on the other side, is different. That much is evident pulling into the city’s train station, where hulking concrete shelters like the ones at the bus station appear on the platforms.

Belgorod’s large central square now sits mostly empty, except for security forces guarding the concrete shelters at each corner. The city’s Soviet-era neoclassical theater is flanked with screens playing videos teaching first-aid techniques and instructing passers-by how to call for help if they become stranded in rubble.

The 340,000 residents, some of whom live in range of Ukrainian artillery, say they feel like they are under attack. Ukraine can fire its own weapons across the border but maintains that it aims at only military targets. Until last month, Washington banned Ukrainian forces from using American weapons to hit inside Russia, and then only military installations.

After the Dec. 30 shelling on the square, which killed at least 25 people and wounded about 100 more, the city erected the shelters near all bus stops. In March, during presidential elections, the shelling ramped up once more.

At least 190 people have died in the Belgorod region since the war started, according to the regional governor’s office. That number is small compared with the more than 10,000 Ukrainian civilians the United Nations says have died during the war. Even so, Belgorod and its surrounding region hear air raid sirens and explosions multiple times daily, and while some residents are fatalistic, most locals take the risks seriously.

When the sirens sound, people abandon their cars and file into the shelters, which can accommodate 15 to 20 people. Many complain about a lack of empathy from Moscow, where restaurants are packed and clubs host revelers deep into the night.

“I guess they live on another planet,” said another Belgorod resident, also named Nataliya, 71, referring to Muscovites as she wove nets of army camouflage with her friend Olga, 64.

Every resident has been touched by the war, whether in their own lives or through those of friends and relatives on the other side of the border, where Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, lies only 45 miles away.

“Most people know someone who was killed or injured,” said a 20-year-old lawyer who requested anonymity because of his antiwar stance. He said the regular attacks on the city, suppression of independent information and use of intensive propaganda had bolstered support for the war.

“Half of Belgorod residents are Ukrainians,” he said. “The more things escalated, and people were subjected to propaganda, they developed hatred. And now, of course, the majority is in favor of war.”

People like him, he said, now spend their days with a sense of “quiet horror."

Tensions in the city have increased in the past month, with Russia’s new offensive toward Kharkiv. The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, has said that the main objective of the assault is to drive the Ukrainian forces far enough back to put Belgorod and its wider region out of range.

“We warned them against making incursions into our territory, shelling Belgorod and neighboring areas, or else we will be forced to create a security zone,” Mr. Putin said in late May during a news conference.

In the days after the Biden administration dropped its ban on using U.S.-made weapons to strike across the border, a deepfake video circulated showing a State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, seeming to suggest that the city of Belgorod was a legitimate target. The video was a fabrication, but it amplified fears that attacks on the city could escalate.

A member of the territorial defense in Belgorod, a part of the military activated under martial law, showed a collection of Western munition casings he said he had collected around Belgorod’s border areas: the remnants of a Czech-made Vampire rocket; a Polish mine; and the spent casing from an 84-mm projectile for a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle, among other things.

The member, who gave only his call sign, Fil, said he was in favor of creating the “sanitary zone” between Russia and Ukraine that Mr. Putin has called for. Fil seemed to think that, eventually, Ukrainians who came under Russian occupation would come around.

“Before, it was like the whole city of Belgorod was in Kharkiv every weekend,” said Fil of the regular contact between people from the two cities. “There was no difference between us and them."

He said that, while it would “take some time for ordinary people to get used to it, everyone will live again as they used to.” Those who don’t want to, he added, “will just have to leave.”

Outside the city, farmers have adapted to the state of war. On a recent afternoon, as Andrei, 29, prepared to water a field planted with sunflowers, his tractor was decked out with netting meant to ward off drones. Radar jamming devices were appended to the top.

“A drone attacked a tractor in a nearby village,” he said, shrugging. “It’s just base cruelty.” He wasn’t sure the net could do anything, but it seemed worth trying. He said that once the Kharkiv offensive started, more and more Ukrainian drones were reaching the territory near the border.

Across the region, people are having to come to terms with the life-altering consequences of the war.

Dmitri Velichko recalled that he had been talking with his sister, Viktoriya Potryasayeva, about buying a house somewhere by the seaside. On Dec. 30, the day before the most important family holiday for most Russians, Viktoriya, 35, went out with her daughters, Nastya and Liza, to buy presents for her family, Mr. Velichko said. She got a fancy mixer for her mother, and was waiting for the bus to head home with her daughters when the shelling began.

She was hit by shrapnel and lost so much blood that she died. Liza, who at 8 months old was in a stroller, had to have her left leg amputated. Dmitri’s mother adopted Nastya, age 9, Mr. Velichko said, while he and his wife Olga adopted Liza. After months in the hospital being fed through an IV, Liza had forgotten how to swallow.

“She had to learn everything again,” Mr. Velichko, 38, said.

Liza has learned to crawl and soon she will get a small prosthetic leg so that she will be able to walk.

Back in the concrete shelter at the bus stop, Nataliya, who works in day care, worried about the long term effects of the war on children.

“The kids in day care are just learning to talk, and their first words are ‘Mama, threat of missile strike,’” she said. “We urgently need peace talks. This will not lead to anything good on either side, neither here nor there.”

She added, “We don’t need Kharkiv, why should we seize it?


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