Fear and Mayhem as Russia’s War Comes Home

Abandoned cats and dogs roam vacant streets lined with blasted apartment buildings, rubble and crumpled cars in Shebekino, a Russian border town pounded by shelling from Ukraine.

A hair salon still smoldered last week. Every window in the blackened carcass of the police headquarters was blown out. Almost all of the 40,000 inhabitants had fled, officials said.

“I need insulin! I need insulin!” cried Lyudmila Kosobuva, 56, who said she was taking care of a diabetic friend too old to move. Her eyes blazed. She was defiant. “We will not leave our land.”

Such desperation and scenes of devastation are familiar to millions of Ukrainians confronting the Russian invasion of their country. But this was not Ukraine, it was Russia — a western sliver of the vast country where Ukrainian-backed forces have lobbed shells and missiles on residential areas.

Because of Moscow’s hostility toward the Western news media, this is a less visible aspect of the war that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia started 15 months ago. Mounting attacks on the Russian side of the border have killed more than a dozen civilians and pushed tens of thousands of people into Belgorod, the capital of a region whose rich soil and manicured streets once earned it the sobriquet “little Switzerland.”

Shebekino is a ghost town after days of shelling. Perhaps a thousand residents linger on. Last week, they included a single man who dragged twisted metal onto the sidewalk in a forlorn cleanup effort. ‌

‌If the intention has been to shake support for Mr. Putin, or Russian resolve in his war, or to make ordinary Russians feel the pain of the conflict for themselves, then the attacks from Ukraine may have had some marginal effect, but they have not changed anything fundamental.

A century of intermittent disaster and oppression have induced in many Russians a form of passive acceptance and patience that serve Mr. Putin well. As the contours of a much-touted Ukrainian counteroffensive begin to be drawn, he can still count on support from most of a population cowed by his increasingly repressive 23-year-old rule.

Russian resolve to win the war is undiminished. There are dissenting voices, and some stirrings of discontent in Belgorod, but an estimated one million of those opposed to the war have fled the country. ‌

“I don’t know why Russia can’t defend us,” said Sergei Shambarov, 58, a Shebekino resident who shunned the mass exodus because he has older relatives. He fingered shrapnel shards he had collected. They were piled in a bowl on a table beside him in his apartment, which is reached via a cement stairwell littered with shattered glass.

“Hundreds of shells a day!” he said. “Factories hit! I can’t explain this.” He shrugged.

None of the Russians interviewed drew a connection between their plight and the 8.2 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled Mr. Putin’s brutal war. Constant propaganda has twisted the conflict into a defensive Russian war against the “Nazis” and “Fascists,” backed by the United States and Europe, who, in the Russian telling, gave Moscow no choice but to take military action.

On the ghostly streets of Shebekino, Viktor Kalugin, 65, complained that Wagner mercenaries and Chechen fighters, both renowned for their ruthlessness, had not been allowed to take care of things.

“I hope our forces will not allow the Fascists to enter here,” he said. “As long as we have Putin, nobody will be able to take Russia. If only he could deal with the generals.”

‌With their bundles, the bedraggled residents of Shebekino form long lines outside sports arenas and cultural centers in Belgorod, where food is distributed. One vast dormitory, set in the middle of an indoor oval cycle track, has 700 beds on which the beached bodies of the aged are sprawled. An offer from local authorities of 50,000 rubles, or about $650, for those displaced by the fighting provoked flashes of outrage when it was announced on Thursday.

“They unleashed a war and now they want to close people’s mouths with pennies,” wrote Svetlana Ilyasova in a chat group of Shebekino residents on the Telegram messaging app.

Russia still insists, although increasingly halfheartedly, that a “special military operation” is underway in Ukraine, rather than a real war. But the term war is now used all of the time in Moscow, most often to describe the all-out confrontation with the West that Russia sees in the conflict.

“This is Russia against the collective West,” a senior official in Moscow, who declined to be named, said in an interview. “Ukraine is just the land where the performance is going on.”

Asked about the situation in Belgorod, the official said: “It is a disaster.”

This is only 50 miles from Belgorod and is used, he said, as a rear base by the paramilitary forces. But, he continued, “we’re trying to demilitarize Ukraine, not eliminate it from the map.”

Russia has thrown wave after wave of soldiers, missiles and shells at the country, which Mr. Putin has made clear he believes is a fictive state that should be part of Russia.

‌The government of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has tried to distance itself from the assaults inside Russian territory. ‌

‌It has attributed the attacks, which had no apparent military target, to Russians fighting for two paramilitary groups, the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, that have embraced the Ukrainian cause as a means to “liberate” Russia from Mr. Putin. The militants advanced into several Russian border villages last month, before the Russian Ministry of Defense said it pushed them back.

How these militias arm themselves with the sophisticated weaponry for sustained shelling and operate from Ukrainian soil without direction from the Ukrainian government is unclear. The United States has repeatedly made clear its opposition to Ukrainian attacks on Russia, fearing escalation, although the recent shelling and incursions have been met with something of a shrug.

The Ukrainian government’s distancing of itself from the militia attacks and incursions into Russian border villages appear intended to taunt Mr. Putin through mimicry. In 2014, he insisted that he knew nothing of the Russian troops without insignia active in annexing Crimea and moving into the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region.

Who exactly destroyed his home in Shebekino was of little concern to Aleksei Novikov as he lined up for several hours outside a Belgorod cultural center to receive handouts. What mattered was his plight.

Above him was a giant billboard declaring, “Glory to Our Air Defense!” Beside him, one man wore a dark blue NYC hat and another a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Los Angeles.” Russia’s radical turn away from the West is still a work in progress.

“How can you not be upset if you have to leave everything?” asked Mr. Novikov, 55. He was born in a defunct state, the Soviet Union. He studied mechanical engineering in Soviet Ukraine. “We always had normal relations with Ukraine,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s hard to understand.”

‌Like many on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border, Mr. Novikov finds it difficult to see how an intricate web of shared history, and often of family ties, produced a savage war that has already taken tens of thousands of lives and may go on for years. The conflict is disorienting in the intimacy of the bonds it has shattered.

Russia’s scattershot response to the attacks in the Belgorod border area has not helped bring any clarity.

Its armed forces have not yet managed to stop the shelling. The government has devoted little time on the main state-controlled TV channels to the debacle in Shebekino, an apparent attempt to avoid alarming people. It has made little or nothing of the bombardment and killing of civilians in attacks from Ukrainian soil, as if any official outrage would be destabilizing. That has not gone down well in Belgorod.

It has also, predictably, angered Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary militia group and the taunting, foul-mouthed satyr of Russia’s unhappy military adventure in Ukraine.

Whether in theatrical connivance with Mr. Putin, who likes to play various power groups off one another, or in a doomsday stand for what he believes in, Mr. Prigozhin has been vehement in his denunciation of Sergei K. Shoigu, the defense minister, and of the less-than-total Russian commitment to the war.

“Shoigu should be in Shebekino right now!” Mr. Prigozhin declared in a video released last week. He said Mr. Shoigu’s actions against the Russian people had enabled “genocide.” He called Vyacheslav Gladkov, the Belgorod regional governor, “an uneducated, ill-prepared coward.”

Mr. Prigozhin concluded with a threat: “We give the Ministry of Defense two weeks to liberate Belgorod, and if not, Wagner is going there ourselves!”

Of course, neither Belgorod nor Shebekino is in need of “liberation.” They are not occupied. But the regular booms overhead in Belgorod as Ukrainian drones are shot down by Russian air-defense missile systems are a reminder of how volatile the situation is. Russian volunteers who have formed impromptu units to bring food and medical care to Shebekino say they have no official authorization to defend or support the city.

In Belgorod, impatience is growing.

The city is also awash in refugees from the Kharkiv area, people with Russian sympathies who fled from an earlier Ukrainian counteroffensive that pushed Russian forces back from the environs of the city in September 2022.

Galina Ivanova, 75, born in Siberia but a resident of Ukraine since she was 28, is one of those who fled then. Despite all her years in Ukraine, she feels resolutely Russian. She started sobbing when handed a package of pasta, rice and other staples. “Do you think it feels nice to have to accept these things?” she said.

At a big volleyball arena in Belgorod, where some of the tens of thousands who have fled Shebekino and surrounding villages come to be registered, Lidiya Rogatiya, 65, was inconsolable. She kept wailing about her abandoned chickens in the Russian village of Novaya Tolovoshanka, near Shebekino, prompting another woman to shout: “Will you keep quiet about your stupid chickens? All you talk about is feeding your chickens!”

But to Ms. Rogatiya, whose pension is just $110 a month, they symbolize the home she has lost, leaving her, she said, with nothing to live for.

Many of the people are poor pensioners, like Ms. Rogatiya, who live in a hardscrabble Russian world that lies at an infinite remove from the glitz of central Moscow.

The volleyball arena, converted into a registration center, was redolent of dust and sweat and grit. Many people had fled with a few possessions hastily stuffed into a couple of garbage bags, at most. Maksim Bely, a volunteer, said people were being given the choice of three destinations: Tambo, 310 miles away; Tula 250 miles away; and Tomsk, 2,420 miles away, in Siberia.

“Most choose Tula,” he said. I asked when these people would go home. “They will go home when the war is over,” he said. When would that be? He offered a wan smile.

At the vast dormitory at the indoor cycle track, Aleksandr Petrianko, 62, paralyzed by a stroke, lay with his head half-hidden by a blanket. His voice trembled. Fear inhabited his eyes.

Will you go home?

He shook his head. “Whatever God gives to us,” he said.

‌He looked across at his 87-year-old mother, Nadezhda, who sat crying on an adjacent bed, raving about all-night shelling and huge explosions and all of the lights going out in Shebekino before they fled.

“My cow!” she said.

Mr. Petrianko said: “I am not angry. They have their truth. We have our truth. But ours will prevail. We believe in Mr. Putin who said victory will be with us.”

Back in Shebekino, where shelling continues, Liliana Luzeva, 60, has stayed on. She could not bring herself to leave her goats, and chickens, and garden. She takes care of some of the abandoned dogs.

When the shelling starts up again, she goes down into her little “potato cellar,” full of jams, mushroom preserves, tomato sauces and buckets of potatoes. A rooster struts across a yard where peonies are in riotous bloom.

“I pray and pray and pray,” she said. “We will push them back. I just don’t know why everything had to happen like this.”

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