In Belgorod, Russia’s worst-hit city by war, Putin remains strong

BELGOROD, Russia — A barrage of Ukrainian missiles hit the western city of Belgorod as polling stations opened across Russia on Friday in a three-day presidential election that put Vladimir Putin certain to win. , destroying the apartment building and injuring at least two people. Thousands of residents are once again scrambling to find shelter.

For most Russian voters, Putin’s two-year war in Ukraine has remained largely invisible beyond state-controlled television or social media. But Belgorod, the regional capital close to the Ukrainian border, has felt the war first-hand as it faces attacks on an almost daily basis.

For four days this week, the city’s air defense forces have been working to intercept rocket and explosive drone attacks, while in east and south Belgorod Russian troops battled anti-Kremlin militiamen along the The border attack was aimed at portraying Putin as someone unable to protect himself. His country, he is up for a fifth term.

But there are few signs that the effort is succeeding, and for many residents such attacks only deepen their support for Putin and drive home the Kremlin’s false narrative that Russians are victims of war rather than its perpetrators. Cities across Ukraine are bombed much more frequently than Belgorod, and Russian weapons are far more powerful, including ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The resulting civilian casualties were also much higher.

As Yanna Mikhichuk and Mikhail Mikhichuk prepared to leave their home to vote on Friday morning, a rocket exploded next to their apartment building and their The living room was filled with dust and glass.

“These bastards are beating us, but they don’t scare me! Tomorrow I will dress up again and go vote for Putin,” said Yana, 55, as she and Mikhail drank vodka and ate pickles. Keep an eye on the latest news from Russia’s main national TV channels.

The drama of the morning was over. “Putin loves his country – he does everything for us,” she said. “He raised this country from the ground up.”

Even as residents of the border town of Greyvolen began to evacuate and Belgorod closed schools, restaurants and shops, voting continued – part of officials’ efforts to show the situation was under control.

“Today and during the three days of voting, it is very important for us to show our unity to the world,” Vyacheslav Gladkov, the popular governor of the Belgorod region said after Friday’s vote.

Lora Muslinova, a neighbor of the Mishchuks, said she also planned to vote for Putin. “I don’t think there’s a better candidate than our current president, who is doing the best he can to handle the situation. In Ukraine, they’ve all been brainwashed and the West is doing their best to put pressure on us,” she said.

A mask-wearing medic with the Belgorod Territorial Defense Force said the attacks gave him more motivation to fulfill his civic duties.

“I’ve never really been a political person – I’ve never voted before,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “But now I’m voting against principle.”

Belgorod city council member Vadim Radchenko said Ukraine’s strategy to disrupt the vote and stir up anger in Moscow was counterproductive.

“The effect is just the opposite: When Russians are faced with this kind of terrorist activity, they don’t give up,” Radchenko said. “As a border city that has historically resisted foreign attacks, Belgorod has a feeling that we have an entire country behind us,” he added. “It’s hereditary.”

As air-raid sirens blared and the black streak of a second attack streaked across the sky on Friday afternoon, people parked their cars and ran to the nearest shelter, where they waited in tense silence for anti-aircraft troops to stop firing.

Voters were streaming in and out of a nearby polling station, where Homeland Defense Forces equipped with first-aid supplies were on duty.

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“The situation is still volatile, but people are still living a peaceful life,” Nikolai Lebedev, the head of Belgorod’s civil protection department, said in an interview on Thursday. “People know the armed forces are doing a tremendous job to protect us. I wouldn’t say the danger has reached critical levels. … There is no panic.”

In an effort to contain emotions and control the narrative, authorities responded quickly to the attacks and sealed off any damage.

A few minutes before 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Egor Gikalo had just sat down to work at his computer when a drone hit the roof, causing a huge explosion. All the windows on the north side of his fifth-floor apartment were shattered. Giccarlo, 25, was not injured. Luckily, he had just pulled a sheet over the window to prevent sunlight from reaching the screen.

“It’s not very pleasant. Of course, people are not happy with the situation,” said Giccarlo, still wearing his bathrobe and slippers, standing in the hallway taking calls from concerned friends. “But what can we do? We’re alive – that’s all that matters.”

Within 15 minutes, emergency services arrived, along with the building manager, a group of reporters and the mayor, he said. Hours later, construction crews were boarding up Gikalo’s broken windows and taking measurements for replacement windows — which they promised would be installed within three days, free of charge.

There was no panic in Belgorod, but nervousness and paranoia were common.

Traumatized by months of attacks, residents largely believe the Kremlin’s blame for the war on “fascists” and “Nazis” in Ukraine, and that the United States and other NATO countries supplied arms to Kiev. They admit they are unhappy, but if they blame Moscow, few say it out loud.

“The mood is pretty low,” said Svetlana, 45. On Thursday, she nervously arranged cucumbers at her stall at the indoor market.

Svetlana, who only gave her first name because she feared repercussions for speaking to Western journalists, said there had been a noticeable drop in customers in recent days and people were afraid to go out. The interview was interrupted by four security guards who demanded documents and said reporters were not allowed to work there.

Normalcy is intertwined with signs of collective stress and a city truly under siege.

Windows in schools and government buildings were taped off and filled with sandbags to protect residents from the glass in the event of an explosion. Food couriers continue to deliver meals on their bikes on empty streets. Homeland Defense Forces are constantly patrolling to keep an eye out for saboteurs.

In Belgorod, reality is distorted, the truth is distorted, making it difficult to get a clear picture of what is going on.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Friday it had thwarted an attempt to infiltrate Russian territory and destroyed more than 1,500 pro-Ukrainian fighter jets, 18 tanks and 23 armored vehicles. The ministry’s account could not be verified, nor could the anti-Russian militia’s account of its attack.

The militias, the Free Corps of Russia, the Russian Volunteer Army and the Siberian Battalion, which describe themselves as Russians stationed in Ukraine to liberate Russia from Putin’s rule, issued several statements this week claiming to be making advances on Russian soil.

One militant said in an interview on a video call that his group wanted to show that Russia’s elections were “basically illegitimate” and planned to “liberate our homeland.” The fighter’s identity was not revealed due to security concerns.

But on Thursday Telegram channels were flooded with attack warnings and evacuation instructions, which many Belgorod residents dismissed as fake news from enemies trying to stoke mass hysteria.

City Officials often claim that air defense systems intercepted all missiles, but videos of the strikes on residential areas surfaced within hours, showing damage and casualties.

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On Wednesday, reports of an attack on a local office of the Federal Security Service (FSB) were later removed from state news agencies.

The result is chaos, with even residents unable to fully assess the gravity of the situation.

For many here, the ongoing attacks in Ukraine – which began in the months after Russia’s February 2022 invasion – are part of an unprovoked siege by Russia-hating fascist forces.

When asked to explain the situation, some pointed to Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution. They say the war is the inevitable culmination of a decade of tense relations with Ukraine. Others offered a range of explanations without evidence – from rumors that U.S. laboratories and NATO bases were located near the border to stories of Ukrainians persecuting Russian speakers.

When asked about Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the deaths of thousands of civilians, some argued it was “collateral damage,” claiming the Ukrainian military was using civilians as human shields.

“We are destroying fascism and victory will be ours,” said Maxim, 34, a member of the Belgorod Territorial Defense Corps whose call sign is “Eagle” because he is not authorized to communicate with the government. Conversations, so only first names will be revealed. news media.

Far from weakening Russian morale, these attacks have led many in Belgorod to believe that they are victims and that Russian forces must strike harder at their Ukrainian enemies. A public photo exhibition in the city center illustrates this point. Photos of a mother holding her baby, a young family huddled in a bomb shelter, and heroic Russian soldiers recall images from World War II that Russian propagandists often use to legitimize the current conflict change.

Nearby, stuffed animals and candles were placed at the city’s Everlasting War Memorial to commemorate the five children who died in the Dec. 30 mass strike that killed 25 people.

Local human rights activist Ilya Kostyukov said some people in Belgorod felt abandoned by Moscow and accused authorities of failing to secure the border. “They criticize and complain, but that doesn’t mean they don’t approve of continuing the war,” Kostyukov said. “There’s no logic here.”

Kostyukov described Moscow’s propaganda as “really messing with people’s brains.”

“In the beginning, many people were worried about their relatives in Ukraine,” he added. “But that worry has now disappeared. Instead, hatred has prevailed.”

Just two years ago, most Belgorod residents could not imagine being in contact with a missile strike in the city of Kharkiv, just an hour and a half away from the Ukrainian city where many have family and friends.

In Belgorod, it is still common to hear Ukrainian accents on the streets and see Ukrainian license plates on cars.Some residents recall fondly a time when trade and transit links with Kiev still existed

Deafening blasts sent people running into restaurant bathrooms, workplace basements and concrete bomb shelters built by authorities at every bus stop Thursday afternoon. This was the third attack of the day. Officials said Thursday’s attack killed at least two people and injured at least 20 others.

In a shelter, Yulia, a Ukrainian woman who has lived in Belgorod since the Russian invasion, is crying. “As long as we launch missiles there, into Ukraine, there will always be a response,” said Yulia, who could only be named by her first name for fear of retaliation. “This whole situation is just a tragedy.”

Larissa, 58, a manicurist who had to dive for cover during a strike on Thursday, said she planned to vote for Putin. “He needs to finish what he started,” she said.

Serhii Korolchuk in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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By Ali Raza

I am a dedicated and skilled News Content Writer with a passion for delivering accurate and engaging stories to a diverse audience. With a solid background in journalism and a keen eye for detail, I bring a commitment to excellence and a deep understanding of the evolving media landscape.

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