Belgorod, in western Russia, hit hard as Ukraine retaliates for airstrikes

A mother and her 6-year-old child, cut down while ice-skating on the city’s central square.

A promising engineering student who had planned to marry his girlfriend this year, hit while waiting for the bus.

A young couple and their baby, all killed as the parents pushed their child in a stroller along a main street.

Such civilian deaths are a constant occurrence in Ukraine, which has come under sustained Russian bombardment. But these victims were among the 25 people killed in the Russian city of Belgorod, about 20 miles from the border with Ukraine, in a rocket and missile attack on the day before New Year’s Eve.

The strike, a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to bring the war home to Russia, was in retaliation for one of Russia’s biggest air attacks on Ukraine — a barrage of missiles and drones that killed at least 39 people and injured at least 159 across the country.

“We will continue to strengthen our air defense,” Zelensky had said in a speech. “And work toward pushing the war back to … where it came from — home to Russia.”

While scores of Ukrainian civilians have died in airstrikes from Kharkiv in the east to Lviv in the west, Belgorod is the only Russian city that has come under sustained assault and where the war is felt directly on a daily basis. The Dec. 30 strike was the first by Ukraine on Russian soil in which the civilian casualty count hit double digits.

The dead that day included five children. More than 100 people were injured, including an 8-month-old baby whose leg had to be amputated. The unusually large number of casualties shocked Russians.

President Vladimir Putin branded the strike a “terrorist act,” the Russian Defense Ministry promised revenge for the “indiscriminate” strikes, and politicians and celebrities pledged donations to the victims’ families.

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Russian state television called it “the blackest day” for Belgorod. The message “Belgorod — we are with you” was displayed on city landmarks and at soccer matches and other sporting events across the country.

“You need to understand — this has not happened before,” Valeria, a local journalist, said in a phone interview. She asked to be identified only by her first name for security reasons. “It really was the most intense bombardment since the beginning of the war. We immediately rushed to hide in the corridor.”

Valeria said there were at least 10 explosions in quick succession, tearing apart the central district, where a mall, drama theater and city administration buildings are located.

“It was really scary,” she said. “Back in peacetime, we always joked that Belgorod is a big village where everyone knows each other. So this is a tragedy that has affected everyone — many people know someone who has been killed or injured.”

A 61-year-old sports coach from Belgorod, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said he was at home when the ground shook and he heard what sounded like a very loud fireworks display. A few seconds later, his work chat group lighted up with colleagues asking for help calling an ambulance and expressing shock at so many dead and injured.

“Ukraine is targeting the town every day now,” the coach said. “Sometimes fragments from the missiles hit the city. People are getting wounded everyday.”

Since the Dec. 30 attack, Ukraine has continued to shell the city — but on a smaller scale. “The city has noticeably quieted down,” he said. “There are unusually few vehicles on the roads, and people have disappeared from the streets. People are afraid for their lives.”

“But there is no panic at all,” the coach added. “There is an understanding that the enemy has pitted one nation against another, but that this is the way it is.”

New Year’s celebrations and Orthodox Christmas services were canceled in the wake of the attack. Shopping malls temporarily shut, and authorities began offering first-aid courses for residents.

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Last week, the local government initiated small-scale evacuations, predominantly of children. Belgorod’s governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, reported that about 300 people were relocated to temporary shelters in towns 80 miles or so to the northwest and that an additional 1,300 children were set to be evacuated to four other regions.

Despite the semblance of order, government efforts were found wanting.

Air raid sirens reportedly sounded late, about 30 minutes after the attack. Several people running for cover to nearby shelters told local media that they found them locked or with vague signage.

“I want to draw attention to the absurd situation around the shelter signs.” one resident complained on the Belgorod administration’s page on Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. “Arrows are drawn, but it is completely unclear where the shelter is located. Not everyone will have the mental energy to scroll through the online list of shelters on their smartphone during a shelling.”

One resident was forced to apologize on camera after he recorded video of the city’s air defenses. In the apology, the man, who identified himself as Denis Boban, stood before a Russian flag between two men in uniforms with “SMERSH” patches — an apparent reference to the Stalin-era counterintelligence service.

The patches appeared to confirm claims from some Russian politicians that the organization was being reestablished. “I fully admit my guilt,” Boban said on the recording. “I am ready to bear full punishment.”

Nikita Parmyonov, an independent journalist from Belgorod who lives outside Russia, said that although war fatigue is running high, residents largely united after the attack.

Scores of civilian volunteers have mobilized to help and collect money for victims and their families, and social media pages are filled with videos memorializing the victims and the heroics of the emergency service workers.

At the same time, there is little acknowledgment — at least publicly — that the attack was a response to an even more deadly Russian strike on Ukraine, or even that it is a consequence of Russia’s invasion of that country.

Gladkov, the governor, has emerged as perhaps Russia’s only true wartime leader, and his public approval ratings have soared as a result. In a televised New Year’s address, which showed him holding red carnations, flanked by two soldiers, Gladkov said the attack had reminded the city about what Russia is fighting for.

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“At the end of 2023, the enemy attacked us and all the pain that this unleashed now lies in the hearts of each of us,” he said. “Once again we clearly saw what our guys are up against on the front lines and what they are defending us from. They are defending our motherland, our freedom and our Belgorod earth.”

The attack also seemed to increase support for the war. “Now people have started to think: It’s not just us, we’re not the only bad guys,” Parmyonov said. “Ukraine is also committing war crimes.”

While some residents want to relocate to Moscow or nearby Voronezh, many feel as if they have been taken hostage by the war, Parmyonov said. “They understand that the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin and Muscovites do not care about them,” he said.

Commenting on one of Gladkov’s posts on Vkontakte, one social media user wrote: “I have a feeling that Moscow has left us. To be more precise: left to be torn to pieces.”

The sports coach said he would like to leave the city and relocate his family but cannot because he needs his job. “My daughter will turn 14 soon. I’m worried not only about her life, but also about her morale,” he said.

Speaking on an independent radio show this week, Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said the reality of war could become a problem for the Kremlin. “People like war on television,” Oreshkin said. “People like war as an electronic game, or as a hockey game where we beat some other team. But if the war becomes routine, joyless, hungry, cold, then one way or another there will be questions.”

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