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POLITICS

«Grads in backyards, trenches across town.» War Comes to Belgorod Region

The terrorist threat level was elevated to «yellow» in the Belgorod region near the Ukrainian border. The situation escalated in March, while the region has been affected by hostilities since the first days of the war in Ukraine. The Russian military is placing missile launchers in close proximity to homes, residents say. Trenches have appeared around Belgorod and Shebekin, whose purpose the authorities have yet to explain. Residents are preparing for an escalation of hostilities fearing they may spill over onto Russian territory.

ALL CARDS
  • Living in the Line of Fire

  • People as a human shield

  • Preparing for the Worst

  • Trenches of unknown purpose

  • Offensive from outer space

  • Less hunters, more volunteer guards

Living in the Line of Fire


Of all the Russian regions, Moscow's decision to invade Ukraine hit the Belgorod region the hardest. As of April 14, there had been 12 officially confirmed incidents related to military action: shelling, «flashes,» accidents with military equipment, and «pops». This is more than in the neighboring Kursk and Voronezh regions combined.

Recent incidents include the shelling of the villages of Zhuravlevka and Spodaryushino, the explosions at an oil depot and in the industrial zone in Belgorod, a «pop» with falling debris in Tomarovka, Nikolskoye and Yasnye Zori, and the explosions near the village of Krasny Oktyabr. Accidents involving military equipment also happen regularly. On April 8, in the village of Kazinka, Valuiki municipality, a tank veered off the road and broke the fence around a house. On April 11, an armored car crashed into the same house, and a truck carrying a missile crashed into a neighboring one.

Some areas were twice covered by a cloud of chemicals: cisterns with nitric acid exploded in the Luhansk region, but the wind was blowing toward Russia. Residents had to shut their windows and wear respirators for some time.

The explosion of a cistern with nitric acid in the village of Rubizhne, Lugansk region. Source: Telegram / Radio Liberty, Pivovarov (Redaktsiya)
The explosion of a cistern with nitric acid in the village of Rubizhne, Lugansk region. Source: Telegram / Radio Liberty, Pivovarov (Redaktsiya)

In reality, such incidents are more frequent, but the authorities do not always comment on them and do not always link them to the war. Residents say shelling has become a routine affair, with «projectiles coming from both sides.» The local media are wary of reporting any facts that have not received official confirmation because of the law on fake news, but people discuss them among themselves or in comments below the publications.

«We have a saying: Watch the news and calm down! Because everything is much better on TV than in reality. It looks better, but they don't tell the truth. They keep silent about a lot of things. If they can, they hide it,» Belgorod residents told The Insider.


People as a human shield


Residents of the village of Nizhny Olshanets near Belgorod reported that the Russian military had placed multiple rocket launchers right next to residential buildings, which is exactly what Moscow condemns the Ukrainian military for doing.

«There were Grads near our houses when it started, and sometimes they fired right from there,» a female village resident told The Insider. «One of the trucks was right next to our house. The straight-line distance from our village to the border is about 20 kilometers.»

Ukrainians also reported that the Russian military was placing MLRS near residential buildings. Odessa businessman Andrei Stavnitser posted photos of Russian equipment near his house: 12 MLRSs, including a Tornado-G and a Grad.

Odessa businessman Andrei Stavnitser leaked his house coordinates to the AFU when he saw on a webcam that Russian MLRSs were standing near it and firing in the direction of Kiev. The AFU destroyed the equipment. Photo: Facebook / Andrei Stavnitser
Odessa businessman Andrei Stavnitser leaked his house coordinates to the AFU when he saw on a webcam that Russian MLRSs were standing near it and firing in the direction of Kiev. The AFU destroyed the equipment. Photo: Facebook / Andrei Stavnitser

The Russian Defense Ministry denied those facts. Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzia called the deployment of missile launchers in residential areas a violation of international humanitarian law, a «despicable tactic,» and the trademark of Ukrainian nationalists who used civilians as human shields.

Residents call February 27 the first quiet day in Nizhny Olshanets. But the firing did not stop altogether. Russian air defenses shot down only a fraction of the missiles, residents claim. «One out of three still hit the target.» Debris from the downed shells fell in residential areas, shattering windows in houses and cars. The shelling escalated in late March and early April. Residents again had to go down into basements.


Preparing for the Worst


Now the Belgorod region lives in anticipation of an escalation. Residents interviewed by The Insider fear the war will spill over onto the territory of Russia. It is also discussed on social media.

«We heard from people who helped the military in Belgorod with clothes and food that [projectiles] would be flying from both sides. They said there would be an escalation before the weekend of April 9-10. On Friday or on Saturday at the latest, there would be massive strikes. Half of the city residents have left, but nothing terrible happened. There were strikes, but nothing special, the air defense intercepted them. Now everyone in the city is in a state of uncertainty. No one understands who's been spreading this information and why», said a doctor at city hospital No.2.

Residents were evacuated from the border villages of Zhuravlevka and Nekhoteevka back in March, as they had been actually in the line of fire. Now people have started leaving Belgorod. «The city is empty, when you drive around you see few cars, no people. When I left by train, the train was packed. A lot of people with children are leaving,» an interviewee told The Insider.

Residents also reported new military equipment arrived to Belgorod in April.

«A lot of military vehicles have been here for a long time, but previously they were mostly stationed on the outskirts, moving around at night. Recently, on April 11, 212 tanks appeared in the city proper. The convoy was moving through the city, we were counting them. And as we went by train from Belgorod to Orel, about three hours' journey, the planes were flying very low over us, right above the train, it was very scary, impossible to sleep.»


Trenches of unknown purpose


Residents were also concerned about the appearance of mysterious trenches, or, as they called them, «foxholes,» in Shebekino and Belgorod. The head of Shebekino District Vladimir Zhdanov never told anybody about their purpose. He only assured the residents that «as a military man, he just needed insurance» (although it was not clear against what), and everyone else had nothing to worry about.

The location of the trenches perplexed social media users. The Ukrainian border is located to the south of Shebekino, and the trenches appeared to the west, near the villages of Grafovka and Titovka. Social media users are struggling to understand how the trenches will help protect the city.

«We need to dig in front of Shebekino, not behind Shebekino!» wrote a member of the Shebekino Whisper group in VK. Some fear that the tranches are intended for defending Belgorod, while the defense of Shebekino and other small towns in the event of an attack is out of the question altogether.

Source: VK.com / Shebekino Whisper
Source: VK.com / Shebekino Whisper

The ditches are 2 to 2.5 meters deep and about 1.5 meters wide. They are too narrow and shallow to serve as an anti-tank ditch intended to guide vehicles into a bottleneck where artillery fire awaits them. Nor do they look like a line of trenches for defense. Trenches have also appeared in Belgorod. According to residents, they have been dug in the roads.

«They stripped away the asphalt, then covered them up with cobblestones. It's on the road that goes from Shebekino and the other towns around Belgorod. When we were leaving, they were just filling in the cobblestones. They made it so it was impossible to drive on this road. And how will the residents of these towns leave? And how will people evacuate from Belgorod? By using country roads?» The Insider's interviewee wondered.


Offensive from outer space


The concentration of military equipment in the Belgorod region is also confirmed by Maxar Technologies satellite imagery. The images from April 11 show a cluster of tanks and armored personnel carriers along Route 14k-34 and the corridor leading from the village of Solot and the town of Valuiki towards the Ukrainian border. There are tent camps and tanks there, and some of the equipment is hidden in the forest belt. As recently as April 2, there had been nothing here.

A cluster of vehicles in the Valuiki district, Belgorod region, coordinates: 50°14'33.0 «N 37°58'27.1 «E (50.242500, 37.974200). Source: Twitter.com / Maxar
A cluster of vehicles in the Valuiki district, Belgorod region, coordinates: 50°14'33.0 «N 37°58'27.1 «E (50.242500, 37.974200). Source: Twitter.com / Maxar

There are several firing ranges in the Valuiki district. Up to 20 tanks and at least 21 military helicopters can be seen at one of them. There is also a cluster of military equipment near the village of Agoshevka. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and military trucks, which were absent from the images dated March 29, are stationed there. The 237th Tank Regiment of the Russian Army is stationed in the village of Solot of the same district.

Earlier, Maxar Technologies published images showing a 12-kilometer convoy of Russian military equipment moving across the Kharkiv region. It was heading south through the village of Bolshoy Burluk, east of Kharkiv.

A convoy of Russian equipment in the Kharkiv region. Source: Twitter.com / Maxar
A convoy of Russian equipment in the Kharkiv region. Source: Twitter.com / Maxar


Less hunters, more volunteer guards


However, hostilities could have already spilled over into Russian territory. There are reports of clashes between the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Russian military in the forests of the Belgorod Region adjacent to the border. The reports have yet to be confirmed. According to other sources, there are no Ukrainians there, only Russian intelligence officers and servicemen.

It was one of the reasons for the spring hunting season in the Belgorod region to be banned. The ban was initiated by a group of hunters who wrote a letter to the governor. They also pointed to another reason: sounds of gunshots may provoke psychological trauma in refugees, including children who arrived from Ukraine.

From a letter by a group of hunters to the Governor of the Belgorod region Vyacheslav Gladkov. Source: Telegram / Belgorod №1
From a letter by a group of hunters to the Governor of the Belgorod region Vyacheslav Gladkov. Source: Telegram / Belgorod №1

As the third argument the authors of the letter cite a falsehood about biological weapons that are allegedly being developed by the Ukrainian authorities. Hunters fear that people may suffer when eating game, because birds, according to the authors of the letter, may have been deliberately contaminated in Ukrainian bio-laboratories.

Amid fears of escalation, the regional governor announced additional recruitment of volunteer guards. They will patrol the streets and keep order. The number of volunteer guards is to be doubled.

The accumulation of forces around Belgorod and the appearance of the trenches near Shebekino have provoked rumors not only about escalation, but also about the possible preparation of a counterattack by the AFU against Russia. This thought has already been circulating in Russian Telegram channels and among residents. But experts consider unlikely a scenario in which the Ukrainian military enters Russian territory. Even if the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberate Izyum and approach the border, they are more likely to switch to defending their territory from there on. Kyiv has neither the resources nor the intent to capture Belgorod and other Russian cities, especially when the occupation of Mariupol and other population centers continues in Ukraine itself.

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