Despite the Ukrainian attacks resulting in the unfortunate loss of life for numerous Russian civilians and the displacement of a significant number of individuals, these incidents have not significantly altered Vladimir Putin’s strategic calculations.
A temporary refuge in Belgorod is providing accommodation for evacuated Russian citizens, including those from Shebekino. The shelter is currently housing individuals who have been displaced due to various circumstances.
Shebekino, a Russian border town, has become a haunting sight with abandoned cats and dogs wandering through the streets lined with shattered apartment buildings, rubble, and damaged cars due to shelling from Ukraine. The aftermath of the attacks has left the town in ruins, with a hair salon still smouldering and the police headquarters reduced to a blackened carcass.
The majority of Shebekino’s 40,000 inhabitants have fled, leaving behind a desolate landscape. Among those who remain is Lyudmila Kosobuva, a defiant resident who urgently calls for insulin, as she is caring for a diabetic friend who is unable to move. The scenes of devastation and desperation in Shebekino resemble the experiences of many Ukrainians affected by the Russian invasion, highlighting a lesser-known aspect of the conflict initiated by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin 15 months ago.
The Russian side of the border has been subjected to increasing attacks from Ukrainian-backed forces, resulting in the deaths of over a dozen civilians and forcing tens of thousands of people to seek refuge in Belgorod, a region known for its fertile soil and well-maintained streets, earning it the nickname “little Switzerland.”
The once vibrant Shebekino has now turned into a ghost town, with only a few lingering residents remaining. The few individuals who stay attempt to clean up the debris, such as a man seen dragging twisted metal onto the sidewalk. However, these efforts seem futile amidst the destruction.
While the attacks from Ukraine may have aimed to weaken support for Putin or instil a sense of hardship among ordinary Russians, they have not brought about any fundamental changes. Centuries of adversity and oppression have fostered a passive acceptance and patience among many Russians, which plays to Putin’s advantage. Despite sporadic dissent and signs of discontent in Belgorod, the majority of the population, subdued by Putin’s increasingly repressive rule over the past 23 years, continues to support his war efforts.
The Russian determination to win the war remains steadfast, despite some dissenting voices and a small degree of discontent in Belgorod. The exodus of approximately one million anti-war Russians indicates the scale of opposition. Sergei Shambarov, a resident of Shebekino, questions why Russia is unable to defend them, pointing to the hundreds of shells that rain down on the town daily, causing significant damage to factories and infrastructure.
Interestingly, none of the interviewed Russians in Shebekino draws a connection between their plight and the 8.2 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled as a result of Putin’s brutal war. Propaganda has distorted the conflict, falsely portraying it as a defensive Russian war against “Nazis” and “Fascists” supported by the United States and Europe, leaving Moscow with no choice but to take military action.
In Shebekino, amidst the ghostly streets, Viktor Kalugin expresses his dissatisfaction, wishing that notorious Wagner mercenaries and Chechen fighters known for their ruthlessness had been allowed to intervene. He believes that as long as Putin remains in power, no one will be able to conquer Russia, hoping that Putin can effectively handle the situation.
The residents of Shebekino, with their meagre possessions, form long queues outside sports arenas and cultural centres in Belgorod to receive food aid. One large dormitory, located within an indoor cycle track, now serves as a shelter with 700 beds occupied by elderly individuals. However, the offer of 50,000 rubles (approximately $650) from local authorities for those displaced by the conflict has sparked outrage among the affected population.
Overall, Shebekino’s devastated state and the suffering of its residents underscore the often-overlooked consequences of the war initiated by Putin. While the attacks may have caused hardship and despair, they have yet to bring about significant changes in the fundamentals.
Russia continues to downplay the conflict in Ukraine, referring to it as a “special military operation” rather than a full-scale war. However, in Moscow, the term “war” is increasingly used to describe the confrontation with the West, with Ukraine being seen as the stage for this confrontation.
A senior official in Moscow, speaking anonymously, characterized the situation in Belgorod, located just 50 miles from Shebekino, as a disaster. Belgorod serves as a rear base for paramilitary forces, and the official stated that the goal is to demilitarize Ukraine rather than eliminate it as a state.
Russia has deployed significant military resources against Ukraine, driven by Putin’s belief that Ukraine is a fictive state that should be part of Russia. The Ukrainian government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, has distanced itself from the attacks on Russian territory, attributing them to Russians fighting for paramilitary groups like the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps.
The militias’ ability to arm themselves with sophisticated weaponry and operate from Ukrainian soil without Ukrainian government direction remains unclear. The United States, concerned about escalation, has repeatedly opposed Ukrainian attacks on Russia but has not strongly condemned recent shelling and incursions.
The Ukrainian government’s distancing itself from the militia attacks and incursions into Russian border villages appears to be a taunting response to Putin, mimicking his denial of involvement in the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Donbas region in 2014.
Aleksei Novikov, a resident affected by the conflict, expressed little concern over who destroyed his home in Shebekino, focusing instead on his plight. The shared history and family ties between Russia and Ukraine make it difficult for many on both sides of the border to comprehend how the conflict has shattered these bonds and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Russia’s response to the attacks in the Belgorod border area has been inconsistent, as its armed forces have failed to stop the shelling. The government has provided limited coverage of the situation on state-controlled TV channels, seemingly to avoid causing alarm. The bombardment and killing of civilians in attacks from Ukrainian soil have been downplayed, possibly to prevent destabilization. However, this approach has not been well-received in Belgorod.
Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary militia group, has been critical of Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu and the Russian government’s perceived lack of commitment to the war. Prigozhin’s threats and criticism reflect his interests and possibly his desire to exert influence within various power groups.
While Belgorod and Shebekino do not require “liberation” as they are not occupied, the volatile situation is evident with the sound of Ukrainian drones being shot down by Russian air-defence missile systems. Russian volunteers providing support to Shebekino claim to lack official authorization for their actions.
Belgorod is also hosting refugees from the Kharkiv area, individuals with Russian sympathies who fled during an earlier Ukrainian counteroffensive in September 2022. The refugees, many of them poor pensioners, struggle to accept the aid provided, feeling a deep sense of loss and abandonment.
The volleyball arena in Belgorod, serving as a registration centre for those displaced from Shebekino and surrounding villages, is filled with a sense of hardship and despair. People have fled with minimal possessions, often stuffed into garbage bags. Many choose destinations within Russia, such as Tambo or Tula, while others opt for more distant places like Tomsk in Siberia. The hope is that they will return home when the war eventually ends, though the timeline remains uncertain.