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

Kyiv, Ukraine – The enemy “turns border districts into a dead zone”, a war correspondent reporting on the war between Russia and Ukraine 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 which borders Ukraine.

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

32 people were killed and 157 injured, regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said at the end of 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 into western Russia.

Destroyed armored fighting vehicles in the Grayvoronsky district of the Belgorod region, Russia [Russian defence ministry press service handout via EPA]

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

This time they tried to take Shebekino, a city of 40,000 people. The city and nearly a dozen villages and farms around it experienced shelling, blackouts, fires and a panic flight of thousands as the governor urged residents to “temporarily leave”.

Kiev did not comment on their raid, but experts told Al Jazeera it was a warning shot, a harbinger of things to come.

“From a political point of view, Kyiv has succeeded in destroying Moscow’s monopoly on the escalation of war and retaining the initiative,” Pavel Luzin, a defense analyst who fled Russia under official pressure, told Al Jazeera.

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

Getting a foothold in Russian territory would be “natural” for the success of Kiev’s counter-offensive, said Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s University of Bremen.

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

‘Permanent battlefield’

For the former de facto defense minister of a separatist region in the Ukrainian Donbas, the invasion of Belgorod spelled disaster.

“The Kremlin can do nothing to prevent the transformation of Belgorod into a permanent battlefield like Donbas over the past nine years,” said Igor Girkin. wrote on Telegram on Sunday.

“The population is in shock and panic. “Russia’s core regions are being destroyed and government authority is rapidly diminishing,” he added.

The pro-Ukrainian fighters failed to take Shebekino, but dug into the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka.

On Sunday, through their Telegram channel, they “invited” the governor of Belgorod to a talk about “the future of Belgorod and Russia as a whole,” and said they would hand over several POWs 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 rubles ($37) for the evacuation of each child.

Hybrid warfare

Ukraine’s top military analyst thinks the invasion of Belgorod proves Kiev’s success in employing the “hybrid warfare” tactics Moscow used in annexing Crimea and supporting separatists in Donbas.

“If they thought that only they would adopt such approaches in other countries, they were dead wrong,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.

Moscow will have no choice but to bolster its reserves in Belgorod and neighboring regions of Kursk and Bryansk by redeploying military personnel from other hotspots, he said.

And the raid could pave the way for uprisings in Russia.

The Russian Volunteer Corps said the ultimate goal is to overthrow Putin — and Ukraine stands ready to help, Romanenko said.

“We must help Russian ethnicities, including ethnic Russians, to fight for independence from the oligarchy, from the Putin regime and his cronies,” he said.

Belgorod and the eastern Kharkiv region of Ukraine is where the nations once almost converged.

Both are Russian-speaking regions, and an overwhelming majority of their inhabitants have 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 from Kharkov airport. But the war put an end to that.

Many in Belgorod welcomed the conflict and readily accepted the lie propagated by the Kremlin that Ukraine would “bomb” its own cities, a Ukrainian official said.

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

Next to Putin

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin “receives constant 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 injured after several “kamikaze” drones were shot down on May 30 over five villages in the Moscow region, about 35 km (21 mi) west of the Kremlin walls.

Some drones carried 1.8 kg (3.9 lbs) of Soviet-era explosives that pierced reinforced concrete and armor but failed to detonate.

The raid looked like a failure, but Putin was not gloating. He simply noted that the air defense was “responsive enough, but there is work to be done”.

That’s because the war was literally knocking at his door.

One of the drones was shot down 4.5 km away from Novo-Ogaryovo, Putin’s favorite residence.

The palatial structure is surrounded by smaller mansions belonging to its close allies, important civil and military officials, heads of Kremlin-controlled companies and their families.

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

Kiev denied responsibility for the drone strikes, but broadcaster CNN reported on Monday that Ukraine has “cultivated” sympathizers and agents in Russia to stage drone strikes and other acts of sabotage.

Ukrainian drones

Ukraine’s reformed military-industrial complex, which made the ex-Soviet nation the world’s ninth largest arms exporter some 10 years ago, is reportedly producing at least 10 types of drones that can fly hundreds of miles and hit targets deep in Russia and the annexed hit Crimea.

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

A fugitive opposition activist from Russia said the general population is well aware of the military threat — and some hope it will spark a coup against Putin.

“There is an awareness 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 used to assassinate Russian Tsar Pavel in 1801.