Belgorod, City Where War in Ukraine Came to Russia, Perseveres

BELGOROD, Russia — Air raid sirens wail almost daily in the southern Russian city of Belgorod, sending people rushing for cover and reminding residents the full-scale war in neighboring Ukraine is a reality for them too.

Compared with the destruction across much of Ukraine, Russia’s vast territory has been largely unscathed.

Belgorod, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the border, is the main exception, a reminder that not every civilian can be shielded from the conflict.

As Russians began voting early on Friday in a three-day presidential election, a missile alert forced election officials to take shelter at a polling station in Belgorod and voting was briefly halted, according to Russia’s RIA state news agency.

Vladimir Seleznyov, a pensioner who witnessed a missile attack on Plekhanov Street on February 15 in which seven people were killed, said it was hard to grow accustomed to the danger.

“Of course, the situation is difficult, but we live near the border. It would be a stretch to say that we got used to that,” he told Reuters on a recent visit to the city to which international media rarely get access.

“It’s understood that, naturally, we will win, we will prevail, but the people are worried and concerned,” he said.

In the ancient fortress town, now a modern city of 300,000 people that is once again on Russia’s front lines, scores of civilians have been killed in drone and missile strikes from Ukraine since February 2022, including two on Saturday.

Kyiv denies targeting civilians just as Moscow does, despite Russia having launched drones and missiles against Ukraine that have killed thousands of civilians and caused hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

In the worst civilian loss of life from foreign enemy fire in internationally recognized Russian territory since World War II, 25 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in missile attacks on Belgorod on December 30.

As he marches towards all but certain reelection in the March 15-17 vote, President Vladimir Putin nevertheless remains popular in Belgorod as he does across Russia, underlining how the war has galvanized support for him.

He calls it a “special military operation” and casts it as part of a long-running battle with a decadent and declining West that humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Ukraine and its Western allies say the invasion was an aggressive and illegal land grab.

War footing

For Belgorod residents, disruptions are frequent, and the signs of war are in plain view.

Soldiers walk the streets and cement blocks have been positioned at bus stops to protect people from potential blasts.

Primary schools have moved to only online lessons while secondary schools are working on a hybrid model of home and in class, similar to how many Ukrainian institutions operate.

Buses stop running when warnings of a missile threat sound, forcing people to disembark and walk. Shopping can be complicated, and appointments are often canceled. Thousands of people left the surrounding region to escape the danger.

Civilian volunteer groups in Belgorod are supporting soldiers, a phenomenon that is common across Russia and Ukraine.

Galina, who collects everyday hygiene items and tools for digging trenches and sends them to the army, said she helps to try to bring the conflict to an end.

Echoing words used by the Kremlin to describe the leadership in Kyiv, she spoke of the need to “denazify” Ukraine and end “fascism” there. Ukraine and its allies dismiss such language as nonsense, pointing out that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish.

“There are no other options,” said Galina, who gave only her first name, as she stood in a warehouse with goods for soldiers.

“I believe that the work that he [Putin] has started in terms of a special military operation, he must complete it,” she said.

Cross-border incursions

Russia’s defense ministry said on Friday its forces had thwarted a Ukrainian attempt to launch a cross-border attack on the Belgorod region the day before.

In a statement, the ministry said Ukraine used helicopters to land up to 30 soldiers close to the border village of Kozinka. It said they were repelled by Russian soldiers and border guards.

Ukrainian officials said earlier on Friday that two Russian border provinces, Belgorod and neighboring Kursk, were under attack by anti-Kremlin Russian armed groups based in Ukraine.

The town of Shebekino, located some 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) from the border in the Belgorod region, was hit by shelling in May and June last year by armed infiltrators. Shell craters mark the roads, and buildings were hit and damaged.

At that time, regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov escorted about 600 children from Shebekino and Graivoron districts to the cities of Yaroslavl and Kaluga, far from the Ukrainian border.

Pensioner Valentina said she also left Shebekino temporarily last summer, persuaded to do so by her daughter, before returning.

She said that she hoped the war would end soon and that people who left the town would come back.

“Everyone wants to get back home,” she said, adding that she planned to vote for Putin. “He has to finish off this war.”

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