‘Dead zone’: How the Ukraine war moved inside Russia

The western Russian region of Belgorod that borders Ukraine has been shelled and attacked by drones hundreds of times.

attacks in Belgorod
Smoke rises over an area of Novaya Tavolzhanka, Belgorod region, Russia, in this screengrab taken from a social media video [Freedom Of Russia Legion via Reuters]

Kyiv, Ukraine – The enemy “turns border districts into a dead zone”, a war correspondent covering the Russia-Ukraine war wrote on his Telegram channel on Saturday.

But retired colonel Yuri Kotyonok, who reported from almost every war zone in the former Soviet Union and whose Telegram channel has 420,000 subscribers, was not talking about Ukraine.

The districts belong to the western Russian region of Belgorod that borders Ukraine.

In recent months, it has been shelled and attacked by drones hundreds of times – 130 in May alone, Russian officials say.

As a result, 32 people were killed and 157 wounded, regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said in late April.

Seven more have been killed since Thursday, he said, after two Ukrainian battalions made up of fugitive Russian nationalists and former prisoners of war began their largest armed incursion in western Russia.

epa10648879 A still image taken from a handout video made available by the Russian Defence Ministry Press-Service shows destroyed armored fighting vehicles in the Grayvoronsky district of Belgorod region, Russia, 23 May 2023. The vehicles were destroyed during a counter-terrorism operation to eliminate a sabotage and reconnaissance group that a day earlier crossed from Ukraine, according to the Russian defense ministry. The 'Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group' that infiltrated the Russian Belgorod region has been eliminated, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said. According to Konashenkov, more than 70 attackers were killed and four armoured vehicles were destroyed. Ukraine has denied Russia's allegation that it was behind the attacks on Belgorod. EPA-EFE/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE HANDOUT -- MANDATORY CREDIT -- HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Destroyed armoured fighting vehicles in the Grayvoronsky district of Belgorod region, Russia [Russian defence ministry press service handout via EPA]

The Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion already crossed the border in March and late May, clashing with border guards and regular forces.

This time, they tried to seize Shebekino, a city of 40,000. The city and almost a dozen villages and farms around it faced shelling, blackouts, fires and a panicked flight of thousands as the governor urged residents to “temporarily leave”.

Kyiv did not comment on their raid, but experts told Al Jazeera that it was a warning shot, a preview of what is yet to come.

“From the political viewpoint, Kyiv managed to destroy Moscow’s monopoly on the escalation of war, and to maintain initiative,” Pavel Luzin, a defence analyst who fled Russia following official pressure, told Al Jazeera.

“The Kremlin understands only the language of escalation, and sees any attempts at pacification as weakness, vulnerability [that trigger] further escalation,” he said.

Seizing a toehold on Russian territory would be “natural” for the success of Kyiv’s counteroffensive, said Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University.

“And although Ukrainian authorities and propagandists deny it, they will be equally happy if it suddenly happens,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘Permanent battlefield’

To the former de facto defence minister of a separatist region in Ukraine’s Donbas, the invasion of Belgorod spelled disaster.

“The Kremlin can’t do a thing to prevent the transformation of Belgorod into a permanent battlefield such as Donbas in the past nine years,” Igor Girkin wrote on Telegram on Sunday.

“The population is in shock and panicking. ‘Core’ Russian regions are being destroyed, and the government’s authorities is declining rapidly,” he added.

The pro-Ukrainian fighters failed to seize Shebekino but dug in in the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka.

On Sunday, they “invited” via their Telegram channel Belgorod’s governor to a parley about “the future of Belgorod and Russia as a whole”, and said they would hand several war prisoners over to him as a “goodwill gesture”.

Gladkov did not show up. He also refused to declare an emergency in Belgorod to avoid paying compensation to the fugitives – as his officials reportedly charged 3,000 roubles ($37) for the evacuation of each child.

Hybrid warfare

Ukraine’s top military analyst thinks the Belgorod raid proves Kyiv’s success in utilising the tactics of “hybrid warfare” that Moscow used when annexing Crimea and backing separatists in Donbas.

“If they thought that it will be only them who would practise such approaches in other countries, they were deeply mistaken,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of Ukraine’s general staff of armed forces, told Al Jazeera.

Moscow will have no choice but to strengthen its reserves in Belgorod and neighbouring regions of Kursk and Bryansk – by redeploying servicemen from other hot spots, he said.

And the raid may pave the way for uprisings within Russia.

The Russian Volunteer Corps said that its ultimate goal is toppling Putin – and Ukraine is ready to help, Romanenko said.

“We need to help Russia’s ethnicities, including ethnic Russians, to fight for independence from the oligarchate, from the regime of Putin and his cronies,” he said.

Belgorod and Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region is where the nations nearly converged once.

Both are Russia-speaking regions, and an overwhelming majority of their residents has relatives and friends on the other side of the border which has long been seen as symbolic.

Business ties were close and mutually profitable, and many Russians used to fly to Europe out of the Kharkiv airport. But the war put an end to it.

Many in Belgorod welcomed the conflict and readily accepted the Kremlin-propagated lie about Ukraine “bombing” its own cities, a Ukrainian official said.

“There was a lot of giggling about ‘why are you bombing yourselves,’ even after dozens died. There was a lot of joy about the launch of missiles towards Kharkiv,” Aleksey Kopytko, a Ukrainian Defense Ministry adviser and a Kharkiv native, wrote on Facebook.

Right next to Putin

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin “constantly receives reports” about developments in Belgorod.

Putin has not commented on the situation – and what he said about another equally important development was laconic.

No one was hurt after several “kamikaze” drones were shot down on May 30 over five villages in the Moscow region, about 35km (21 miles) west of the Kremlin walls.

Some of the drones carried 1.8kg (3.9 lbs) of Soviet-era explosives that penetrate reinforced concrete and armour – but did not detonate.

The raid looked like a failure, but Putin did not gloat. He simply noted that air defence responded “satisfactorily, but there’s work to be done”.

That is because the war knocked on his door – literally.

One of the drones was shot down 4.5km (2.7 miles) away from Novo-Ogaryovo, Putin’s favourite residence.

The palatial structure is surrounded by smaller mansions of his closest allies, key civilian and military officials, heads of Kremlin-controlled corporations and their families.

Putin even moved his daughters and ex-wife to the area known for forest air and Russia’s highest real estate prices, according to Proekt, an independent publication.

Kyiv denied responsibility for the drone attacks, but the broadcaster CNN reported on Monday that Ukraine has “cultivated” sympathisers and agents within Russia to organise drone attacks and other acts of sabotage.

Ukrainian drones

Ukraine’s reformed military-industrial complex that made the ex-Soviet nation the world’s ninth arms exporter about 10 years ago reportedly produces at least 10 types of drones that can fly hundreds of kilometres and strike targets deep inside Russia and annexed Crimea.

And even if not all of their attacks are surgically precise yet, the swarms of drones will be able to overpower Russian air defence systems and keep them and their personnel away from the front lines.

A fugitive opposition activist from Russia said that the general populace is well aware of the military threat – and that some hope it may trigger a coup against Putin.

“There is an understanding that there will be more [drone attacks] – and a hope that someone [around Putin] will find a snuffbox,” Sergey Biziykin told Al Jazeera, referring to the murder weapon Russian Tsar Pavel I was killed with, in 1801.

Source: Al Jazeera