Belgorod, the city where the war in Ukraine came to Russia

By Thomson Reuters Mar 15, 2024 | 2:05 AM

By Vladimir Soldatkin

BELGOROD/SHEBEKINO, Russia (Reuters) – Air raid sirens wail almost daily in the southern Russian city of Belgorod, sending people rushing for cover and reminding residents the full-scale war in neighbouring Ukraine is a reality for them too.

Compared with the destruction across much of Ukraine, Russia’s vast territory has been largely unscathed.

Belgorod, 40 km (25 miles) north of the border, is the main exception, a reminder that not every civilian can be shielded from the violence of war.

Vladimir Seleznyov, a pensioner who witnessed a missile attack on Plekhanov Street on Feb. 15 in which seven people were killed, said it was hard to grow accustomed to the danger.

“Of course, the situation is difficult, but we live near the border. It would be a stretch to say that we got used to that,” he told Reuters on a recent visit to the city to which international media rarely get access.

“It’s understood that, naturally, we will win, we will prevail, but the people are worried and concerned.”

In the ancient fortress town, now a modern city of 300,000 people once again on Russia’s front lines, scores of civilians have been killed in drone and missile strikes from Ukraine since February 2022.

Kyiv denies targeting civilians just as Moscow does, despite Russia having launched drones and missiles against Ukraine that have killed thousands of civilians and caused hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

In the worst single civilian loss of life from foreign enemy fire in internationally recognised Russia since World War Two, 25 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in missile attacks on Belgorod on Dec. 30 last year.

On the eve of elections from March 15-17, President Vladimir Putin nevertheless remains popular in Belgorod as he does across Russia, underlining how the war has galvanised support for him.

He calls it a “special military operation” and casts it as part of a long-running battle with a decadent and declining West that humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Ukraine and its Western allies say the invasion was an aggressive and illegal land grab.


For Belgorod residents, disruptions are frequent and the signs of war are in plain view.

Soldiers walk the streets and cement blocks have been positioned at bus stops to protect people from potential blasts.

Primary schools have moved to online lessons only while secondary schools are working on a hybrid model of home and in class, similar to how many Ukrainian institutions operate.

Buses stop running when warnings of a missile threat sound, forcing people to disembark and walk. Shopping can be complicated and appointments are often cancelled. Thousands of people left the surrounding region to escape the danger.

Civilian volunteer groups in Belgorod are supporting soldiers, a phenomenon that is common across Russia and Ukraine.

Galina, who collects everyday hygiene items and tools for digging trenches and sends them to the army, said she helps to try bring the conflict to an end.

Echoing words used by the Kremlin to describe the leadership in Kyiv, she spoke of the need to “denazify” Ukraine and end “fascism” there. Ukraine and its allies denounce such language, pointing out that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is Jewish.

“There are no other options,” said Galina, who gave only her first name, as she stood in a warehouse with goods for soldiers.

“I believe that the work that he (Putin) has started in terms of a special military operation, he must complete it,” she added.


Closer to the border, in the town of Shebekino, shell craters mark the roads and buildings have been hit and damaged.

Last June, regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov escorted about 600 children from the region’s Shebekino and Graivoron districts to the cities of Yaroslavl and Kaluga, far from the Ukrainian border.

Pensioner Valentina said she also left Shebekino temporarily last summer, persuaded to do so by her daughter, before returning.

She said she hoped the war would end soon and that people who left the town, located some 7 km from the frontier, would come back.

“Everyone wants to get back home,” she said, adding that she planned to vote for Putin. “He has to finish off this war.”

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Mike Collett-White and Barbara Lewis)