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War May Be Distant in Moscow, but in One Russian Border City, It’s Real

BELGORD, Russia – Military trucks and armored personnel carriers sprayed with the letter Z thunder through intersections, and groups of men in camouflage walk the streets shopping for military supplies such as thermal underwear. Refugees are pouring in from areas in Ukraine recently lost to the enemy.

In Belgorod, 40 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, noises of nearby explosions are regularly heard, and fearful shop owners are calling the police with alleged bomb threats, a sign of the paranoia that is beginning to spread. Residents express fear of what will come next, with some even speculating that Ukrainian troops could take a step they avoided for nearly seven months and enter Russian territory.

“It’s like they’re already here,” a gray-faced woman told a merchant in the city’s central market after the bang of an explosion.

President Vladimir V. Putin has tried to keep the lives of most Russians as normal as possible during his war in Ukraine, making hostilities a distant concept. But now that Ukrainian forces are on the offensive, the residents of Belgorod feel that war is imminent.

“There are so many rumours, people are scared,” said Maksim, 21, a merchant in the market.

He sold thermal underwear, camouflage jackets and other sporting goods that once went to hunters and fishermen, but are now bought up by soldiers and their relatives. Like most other residents interviewed for this article, he declined to give his full name for fear of retaliation.

The mood in the market, a maze of stalls selling clothes, household items and military equipment, was tense. Although the city of Belgorod is not directly attacked, the Russian military air defense intercepts missiles in the distance. The sounds of the explosions resound, and in the Komsomolsky district, houses and properties are hit by debris.

On Monday, a teacher training center, a shopping center and a bus station held evacuation drills as officials assured concerned local citizens that the drills had been planned in advance. The regional government is evacuating towns and villages along the border when they come under Ukrainian shelling. Denis, a local businessman, recently paid someone to dig an 11-foot bomb shelter in his yard.

Many residents of the city fear that the risks to their safety are increasing.

“We’re scared, and it’s especially hard when you work with children,” said Ekaterina, 21, a kindergarten teacher who said a shrapnel fell at the school early this week. “The kids start running around yelling ‘rockets’, but we tell them it’s just thunder.”

While most residents of Belgorod support the Moscow government and the war effort, some express frustration that the rest of Russia is still alive as if not waging a full-scale war.

“How ashamed they are!” cried a middle-aged woman named Lyudmila, from the Komsomosky district.

“In Moscow, they are celebrating City Day, while blood is being spilled here,” she said, referring to a city-wide celebration last week to mark the founding of the Russian capital, which included fireworks and the grand opening of a large Ferris wheel by Mr Putin. “Here everyone is worried about our soldiers, while there everyone is partying and drinking!”

Even those who support the war effort expressed frustration that the Kremlin insists on calling it a “special military operation” when they can see it’s a full-blown war. Many wonder if a concept is coming, and if so, how soon.

Refugees arriving from Ukraine also bring home the realities of the war.

Thousands of people from eastern Ukraine have arrived in recent months, especially last week when Ukrainian troops recaptured territory in the northeast occupied by Russian soldiers. Some were concerned about living under the control of the Ukrainian government in Kiev, while others, especially those who had been given Russian passports or taken jobs in the occupation administration, feared being treated as collaborators, according to activists helping them leave.

“They tried to live their lives, working in hospitals, in schools, shops, but that side understands this as working with occupiers,” said Yulia Nemchinova, who has helped refugees in Belgorod. Ms. Nemchinova, who holds pro-Russian views, left her native Kharkiv, just across the border, in 2014 after her husband had legal issues with Ukrainian authorities.

But she also said that many people felt shocked and effectively betrayed by a Russian army they saw as liberators but now on the run in the face of a major Ukrainian offensive.

“They were promised: Russia is here forever,” said Ms. Nemchinova.

As journalists and researchers uncover evidence of atrocities and human rights violations committed by Russians during the occupation, people who recently fled to Belgorod say the retreating Russian army has told them to leave due to possible retaliation.

In interviews in Belgorod, people fleeing the area recently recaptured by Ukraine said they feared that if the Ukrainian army entered the local administration building, soldiers would find the lists of people holding jobs or humanitarian aid from the Russian interim government. accepted and meet. punishment for cooperation. People were also afraid because Ukraine has passed a law that punishes cooperation with the occupying authorities with 10 to 15 years in prison.

A woman named Irina said her boyfriend, a former Ukrainian border guard, posted his personal information to a Telegram group that claimed to name associates.

“There is no turning back,” said Irina, 18, in an interview at a clothing bank where newly arrived refugees gathered clothes and food. Her mother and sister stayed in their village and she said she hoped the Russians would occupy it again soon.

In Belgorod, a city of 400,000 inhabitants, the fear of Ukrainians on the other side of the border would have been unheard of ten years ago. For years, Russians in Belgorod regularly traveled the 80 kilometers to Kharkov – Ukraine’s second largest city, with a pre-war population of 2 million – to party, dine and shop. Many families are divided across the border.

“Belgorod was in total shock,” said Oleg Ksenov, 41, a restaurant owner who has spent the past few months evacuating people from battlefields in Ukraine and bringing them to Russia. “We just love Kharkov.”

Viktoriya, 50, owner of a cafe and bakery in the city, said Kharkiv was a “megapolis” in the minds of every Belgorod resident.

“We had a joke: if you want to meet people from Belgorod, go to the Stargorod restaurant in Kharkiv on the weekend,” she said.

The relationship worked both ways. In the years after Russia unleashed a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Ukraine has imposed stricter laws against speaking Ukrainian, not Russian, in public. That prompted Russian speakers from Kharkiv to travel to Belgorod to watch movies in Russian, said Denis, the businessman, who is 44.

Now the two cities are effectively separated by a front line.

“It’s a tragedy of tectonic proportions,” he said. “It affects everyone at Belgorod. Every family is connected to Ukraine.”

His aunt Larisa had just arrived over the weekend from Liman, a town in the Donetsk region occupied by the Russian army at the end of May. Since then, it has had no electricity, gas or running water, and she said more than 80 percent of its housing stock was destroyed.

Earlier in May, a missile – she did not know which army, although she blamed Ukraine – hit her apartment building. Then, at the end of the month, the Russians arrived.

“I was so lucky to wait for them,” said Larisa, 74, in surzhik, a dialect that is a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian.

Now her home is the scene of fierce fighting on the front lines. She said she has trouble walking and struggled to get to the basement every time the air raid siren sounded.

As the fighting got closer, she said, she knew she had to get out, because she didn’t want to be ruled by Kiev anymore and was afraid.

Mr. Ksenov, who was born in Kharkov but made Belgorod his home more than a decade ago, has devoted his time to helping civilians flee from Ukraine to Russia. He is concerned about what will happen in the long term to the people of the border regions of both countries.

“This slaughter will eventually end,” he said of the war in an interview at his restaurant, which has plywood for its windows in case of bombing.

“But who will we be? How shall we look each other in the eye?”

Anastasia Trofimova contributed to the report.