Home News Air-raid shelters and drone jamming: How Russian cities adapted to war

Air-raid shelters and drone jamming: How Russian cities adapted to war

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As Alina waited for the bus to her family’s weekend dacha outside Belgorod, she made a point of waiting deep inside a concrete shelter built earlier this year around the station.

It had been nearly six months since she and her brother Artyom, 8, were nearly injured in the attack on Belgorod’s central square when Alina, 14, took him ice skating. It was New Year’s Day.

“We lay there for a long time with our hands over our heads and our mouths slightly open,” she said, describing how they took shelter on the kitchen floor of a restaurant near the square.

“It was very scary, but now I’m used to it,” she added. “I know what to do in this situation.” In the months that followed, she developed panic attacks and suffered from anxiety, said her mother, Natalia, who, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the authorities.

It’s another summer in Moscow, and life there is much the same as it was before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. But 25 miles from the border, Deep ties to Ukrainians on the other hand, is different.This is apparent as you pull into the train station, where hulking concrete shelters resembling bus stations appear on the platforms.

Belgorod’s large central square is now mostly deserted, save for security forces guarding concrete shelters on every corner. Screens on either side of the city’s Soviet-era neoclassical theater play videos teaching first aid techniques and instructing passersby on how to call for help if they are trapped in the rubble.

Some of the 340,000 residents who say they feel they are under attack live within range of Ukrainian artillery fire. Ukraine can fire its own weapons across the border but insists it is only targeting military targets. Until last month, Washington banned Ukrainian forces from using American weapons to attack inside Russia, and only military facilities.

Shelters were set up near all bus stations in the city following the shelling of the square on December 30, which killed at least 25 people and injured about 100. Shelling escalated again in March during the presidential election.

At least 190 people have died in the Belgorod region since the war began, according to the regional governor’s office. That’s a small number compared with the more than 10,000 Ukrainian civilians the United Nations says have died during the war. Even so, air raid sirens and explosions are heard multiple times a day in and around Belgorod, and while some residents fear death, most locals take the risks seriously.

When the alarm sounded, people abandoned their cars and rushed to shelters that could accommodate 15 to 20 people. Many complained about the lack of empathy among Muscovites, whose restaurants were packed and revelers partied late into the night in clubs.

“I guess they live on another planet,” said another Belgorod resident, also named Natalia (71), referring to the Muscovites, as she and her friend Olga (64) weaved military camouflage netting.

Every resident has been affected by the war, either through their own lives or through the lives of friends and family on the other side of the border, with Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, just 45 miles away.

“Most people know someone who has been killed or injured,” said a 20-year-old lawyer who requested anonymity because of his anti-war stance. He said regular attacks on the city, the suppression of independent information and intensive propaganda had all bolstered support for the war.

“Half of Belgorod’s residents are Ukrainian,” he said. “The more things escalate, the more people are influenced by propaganda, the deeper the hatred becomes. Now, of course, the majority of people support the war.”

He said people like him now live in a “quiet fear” every day.

Tensions have risen in the city over the past month as Russia New offensive towards KharkovRussian President Vladimir Putin said the main goal of the offensive was to push Ukrainian troops far enough to put Belgorod and the surrounding area out of Russian attack range.

“We warn them not to invade our territory, not to shell Belgorod and its vicinity, otherwise we will be forced to create a safe zone,” Putin said at a news conference in late May.

Days after the Biden administration lifted a ban on cross-border strikes using U.S.-made weapons, Deepfake videos circulating The video, which showed State Department spokesman Matthew Miller appearing to suggest the city of Belgorod was a legitimate target, was fabricated but it heightened concerns that attacks in the city could escalate.

A member of the Belgorod Territorial Defense Forces A member of the army activated under martial law displayed a collection of Western ammunition shells, said to have been collected in the Belgorod border region: the remains of a Czech-made Vampire rocket, a Polish mine, a spent shell from an 84mm rifle round, and more.

The lawmaker, who gave his name only as “Phil,” said he supported the creation of what Mr. Putin has called a “sanitary zone” between Russia and Ukraine. Mr. Phil seemed to think that Ukrainians, who are ultimately occupied by Russia, would accept the proposal.

“It seemed like the whole city of Belgorod would come to Kharkiv every weekend,” Phil said of the frequent exchanges between the two cities. “There was no difference between us and them.”

He said that while it would take “some time for the average person to adjust, everyone would return to their previous lives.” Those who don’t want to “will have to leave,” he added.

Outside the city, farmers have adapted to a state of war. On a recent afternoon, Andrei, 29, prepared to water a field of sunflowers, his tractor draped with netting to ward off drones. A radar jammer was also mounted on top.

“A drone attacked a tractor in a nearby village,” he said with a shrug. “It was just despicable cruelty.” He wasn’t sure what the network could do, but it seemed worth a try. He said that since the Kharkov offensive began, more and more Ukrainian drones have arrived in areas near the border.

Across the region, people have had to deal with the devastating impact of war on their lives.

Dmitry Velichko recalled that he had talked with his sister Victoria Potryazaeva about buying a house by the sea. The day before the most important family holiday for most Russians, Victoria, 35, was out shopping for family gifts with her daughters, Nastya and Lisa, Velichko said. She bought her mother a fancy blender and was waiting to catch a bus home with her daughters when the shelling began.

She was hit by shrapnel and bled to death. Lisa had to have her left leg amputated while she was in a stroller at 8 months old. Mr. Velichko said Dmitri’s mother adopted Nastya, 9, while he and his wife, Olga, adopted Lisa. After months of being fed intravenously in the hospital, Lisa had forgotten how to swallow.

“She had to relearn everything,” Mr. Velichko, 38, said.

Lisa has learned to crawl and will soon be fitted with a small prosthetic leg so she can walk.

Back in the concrete shelter at the bus station, Natalia, who works at a nursery, worries about the long-term impact of the war on children.

“The children in the nursery are just learning to talk and the first words they say are ‘Mom, there’s a threat of missile attacks,'” she said. “We desperately need peace talks. This is not good for either side, here or there.”

She added: “We don’t need Kharkiv, so why occupy it?”

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