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Locals speak of a tense atmosphere after a number of attacks – and reports of Ukrainian saboteurs
The sounds of war have become louder in Belgorod, a mid-sized Russian city about 25 miles (40km) from the Ukrainian border. And the blasts are more frequent.
“On Sunday, we were woken up again by explosions. You never know if it’s them or us firing,” said Vladimir, a shopkeeper in the city.
Locals such as Vladimir first witnessed Russia’s military buildup at the start of the year, when thousands of troops amassed near Belgorod before Moscow’s attack in late February.
“When the conflict started, we would hear rockets being launched into Ukraine. But now we get hit too. It is a different sound.”
As the war has dragged on and Russia failed in its objective to quickly seize Kyiv, officials in Belgorod and other border cities have in recent weeks reported a series of attacks by Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine has not directly accepted responsibility but has described the incidents as payback and “karma” for Russia, almost three months after it invaded its neighbour.
The apparent Ukrainian attacks, which started when two helicopters struck an oil depot in Belgorod on 1 April, have brought a new element into the war, raising the previously unthinkable possibility that some of the devastating damage that Moscow has inflicted on Ukraine will come to Russia’s own territory.
“We talk a lot about what is happening, of course. The atmosphere in the city is sort of tense,” said Anna, a local teacher.
“Life goes on, but sometimes it is impossible to ignore it, like the time the city was in thick smoke,” she said, referring to the fuel depot attack.
In this week alone, officials in Belgorod reported at least three attacks. Last week, Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of the Belgorod region, claimed a strike on a small town in the area had killed one Russian civilian.
During the last week, Ukrainian forces have recaptured villages from Russian troops north and north-east of Kharkiv, pushing them back towards the border near Belgorod. This has given some relief to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is only an hour’s drive from Belgorod and has been under enemy bombardment since the war began in February.
And while the consensus among military experts remains that Ukraine will not aim for a push into Russian territory, its advances have been met with unease in Belgorod and across Russia.
In a recent live Q and A with locals, Gladkov was forced to answer questions from worried voters about what the recent Ukrainian advances would mean for Belgorod. The governor tried to offer reassurance but admitted that certain parts of the region were under “constant shelling”.
He has also raised the city threat levels to “yellow”, the second-highest in a three-tier system, and a heavier police presence is now being felt across the city, according to Anna.
There have also been reports of two fires at defence ministry facilities in the Belgorod region as well as damage inflicted to a key Russian railway bridge, leading to speculation that Ukrainian saboteurs have been active on Russian territory. Russian officials have not commented on the incidents, and it remains unclear what caused the fires.
Nikita Parmenov, a journalist at the independent Fonar outlet, said the lack of information regarding some of the recent fires has led to “fears and gossip that Ukrainians have infiltrated the towns and villages in the region”.
Still, despite the direct threat posed by Ukraine, Parmenov said there were no visible signs of an upsurge in patriotism in Belgorod.
“Many here have direct links with Ukraine, they talk to relatives across the border. It feels like we have a better understanding of what is going on than most regions in Russia,” said the journalist, who has himself been in contact with his aunt from Odesa.
“Enthusiasm for the special military operation feels muted. It has torn some families apart, while others prefer not to speak about the conflict with their friends and siblings in Ukraine.”
But it is not just Ukrainian attacks that have disrupted life on Russia’s borderlands – the war has had broader effects, too. Since the start of the invasion, Moscow has suspended the work of 11 airports in parts of central and southern Russia that are close to Ukraine, citing the “difficult situation surrounding Ukraine”, and hindering travel for millions of Russians.
Among the airports shut are those serving popular holiday destinations, including some in the annexed Crimean peninsula and the Black Sea resort towns of Gelendzhik and Krasnodar.
“I am expecting a disastrous summer holiday season,” said one hotel owner in Sevastopol.
During the first weekend of May, when Russians usually travel to the country’s south, the hotel occupancy rate in Crimea was 10–15%, according to a study by the Russian business outlet Kommersant.
The Crimean tourism industry expects that up to 70% of hotel rooms will remain empty over the summer holidays because of difficulties travelling to Crimea and worries that the peninsula is too close to the war.
“It is going to be a tough summer,” said the owner of the mid-sized Crimean hotel. “But in war, you have to make sacrifices.”