The war has become impossible to ignore in Belgorod, southern Russia, just miles from the border with Ukraine. Russian soldiers retreating from the Ukrainian counterattack now roam the streets. Air defenses boom out overhead several times a day. The city is once again filled with refugees. And, at the border, Russian and Ukrainian soldiers stand within sight of each other.
Three Russian soldiers from Ossetia are wandering the unfamiliar streets past the grand Transfiguration Cathedral late one evening. They seem unsteady on their feet, perhaps drunk or tired. And they’re looking for a place to eat.
Since February, they say, they have fought in Ukraine as part of the invasion force. They were stationed in the village of Velyki Prokhody, just north of Kharkiv, when the urgent signal came to flee back to Russia last week.
“What can we say? An order is an order. We didn’t have a choice,” says one wearing a hat emblazoned with a Z, a tactical symbol adopted as a patriotic emblem of war support in Russia.
As the Russian front in Kharkiv has collapsed and Ukrainians who have chosen the Russian side have fled for the border, a dark thought has crossed the minds of ordinary people here: that the war may cross into Russia.
Asked where they are headed next, the soldiers say they don’t know. But it’s likely, they think, they will be sent back south “to defend the border”.
The following day, some 400 National Guard troops are reinforcing positions held by the Russian border guards. Even there, an activist who was present said, soldiers were soul-searching among themselves. Within eyeshot are Ukrainian troops on the other side in a tense standoff.
“How the fuck did this happen?” one border guard said to another, two people who were there recall.
In Belgorod, the signals of war and tension are on display, even if most people believe the conflict is unlikely to spill over. Oleg, a restaurateur originally from Ukraine wears a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Born in Kharkiv”, and has bought plywood boards in case he needs to cover his restaurant’s windows.
His business partner, Denis, has built a bomb shelter in his backyard and evacuated his grandmother from a Russian-held town in eastern Ukraine now on the frontline of the conflict.
Denis says he hopes that tensions will recede. But they are also taking precautions. “Nobody expects it to come here,” says Oleg. “But we have to be ready.”
In Belgorod’s central market, soldiers are stocking up for the winter, signaling that Russia’s war may stretch for the coming months or even longer.
“Where are the balaclavas?” one yells out, rummaging through one of several stalls selling camouflage hats, jackets, thermal underwear and other cold-weather equipment.
“Every day, dozens of the boys come, there are so many of them now [since the counteroffensive],” says Marina, who sells camouflage items in the market. “Everyone has these glum faces. It is more tense now.
“I see them buying these things, and I wonder why they don’t already have them [them],” she also says, adding that the troops are buying basic food and cooking implements that she expected would be supplied by the army.
An elderly woman in the market cries on one of their shoulders. “Please, please help us,” she sobs emotionally. Men walk up to clap the soldiers on the back. Overhead, an explosion is audible. “Air defenses,” one man murmurs.
“You feel [the war] here in a way you don’t feel it in other cities,” says Andrei Borzikh, a bankruptcy lawyer who has been crowdfunding thermal rifle scopes and other equipment for the Russian army. He carries a helmet and a bulletproof vest in his car. “You hear it.”
Ukraine has not given any indication that it intends to cross the border or do more than retake territory occupied by Russia. But the very idea of the Kremlin’s quick, victorious war boomeranging back across the border into Russia speaks to the realities of the defeat suffered by its forces in recent days.
“Some miscalculations were made in any case – maybe they were tactical, maybe they were strategic,” says Borzikh. “The fact that Russia thought it had come there for ever was clear.”
Like other boosters of the Russian army, he says that the recent defeats should be attributed to western support for Ukraine. “Russia is now in a conflict with a third of the world community,” he says.
On a recent weekday, a security officer in blue fatigues holds a Kalashnikov rifle outside the red-brick Lycee No 9 on the central Narodny Bulvar. An hour earlier, reports had emerged that the city was holding planned evacuations of local schools and major shopping centers, apparently in case of shelling or bomb threats.
The governor of Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, reissued an order on Monday requiring local authorities to check their bomb shelters. Schools near the border have been temporarily closed. Online videos show volunteers cutting down trees to build fortifications in the forested areas south of the city.
People here now understand that the war is not going well. In a series of interviews, locals describe feeling shock in the early days of the war, followed by a rise in patriotic sentiment accompanied by pro-war symbols such as the popular Z plastered on cars and buildings.
Now many of those have disappeared as Belgorod settles in for a long conflict that has come far closer than they ever expected.
As in many Russian cities, there is hardly any anti-war activism. Ilya Kostyukov, 19, an opposition activist and founder of the Belgorod Anti-War Committee, says he focuses on encouraging people who oppose the conflict to speak up, and that trying to convince supporters of the war to change their minds is “pointless”.
Asked about direct consequences of the war for people in Belgorod, he points to the arrival of refugees and a recent blackout caused by an explosion hitting a nearby power station.
Soldiers had also been growing rowdy at the karaoke cafe where he works behind the bar. Fights break out regularly, he says. One group of soldiers refused to pay their bill and then pulled a pistol on a bouncer.
But largely, he says, apathy reigns in Belgorod. “For us, it feels like no one cares until it touches them personally. Until someone brings a coffin to your home, nobody cares.”
Some families are split by the border. Irina, a travel agent, lives with her daughter in their native Belgorod. But her ex-husband and father of her child lives in Kharkiv.
“Our child is split between two countries,” she says in a tense voice. “Absolutely equally. No matter what happens.”
Two weeks ago, she says, her ex-husband told her that he had been called up into army service by Ukraine. He was ready to serve because he felt it was his patriotic duty. She is terrified he’ll be killed.
“I lost my mind a bit and said some really unpleasant things,” she says of their most recent conversation. “Anything can happen. I wanted to save the father of my child.
“He is a citizen of Ukraine and he is fulfilling his duty for his country – and trying to fulfill his duty to his family.”
In the evenings, Yulia Nemchinova, a volunteer who delivers aid to people recently arrived in Belgorod from Ukraine, goes to a small shipping container in the industrial sector that she calls “the warehouse”. Inside, there are crackers and biscuits, nappies, tampons, tea and coffee and dozens of other products that won’t spoil in the heat or cold.
On her phone, she has a spread-sheet of nearly 1,200 entries from families who have arrived, requesting basic goods. She estimates that 6,000 people are in need. One apartment alone had nearly two dozen people in it, she says. “Belgorod is overflowing.”
Nearly 85% of recent arrivals from Ukraine want to stay close to the border, she says. This had led many to decline going into government refugee camps along the border that would later see them sent further into Russia.
There is a sense, even among Putin supporters, that Russia is losing hearts and minds in Ukraine.
At a center for aid distribution, Ukrainians with openly pro-Kremlin views ask why they haven’t been warned about the counteroffensive or received more aid from the government after arriving in Russia.
“We feel homeless and like nobody needs us,” says one woman with pro-Russian views who fled occupied Kupiansk, a town that was recently retaken by the Ukrainian army.
As promised to all those fleeing the war into Russia, she received 10,000 rubles (£143) from the government. “We got our 10,000 roubles, but my house was there, and I’ve thrown everything away and become homeless,” she says.
One Russia-based activist who regularly traveled into occupied Ukrainian territory in order to evacuate people says he was stunned by the lack of investment in infrastructure there. I recall the feeling of witnessing an “apocalypse” while standing at an empty crossroads in Kupiansk.
I brought 3.5 tons of food and medicine to an orphanage where children had stayed behind. In other places, they simply traveled through small villages to bring food and medicine to local people, often elderly, who had stayed behind.
In Vovchansk, he says, there was no light or electricity for several months. “I think that’s one of the failures of the Russian army – that they didn’t bring enough benefits. So people welcomed the arrival of Ukrainian troops,” he says.