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Attacks in Russia 'destroy myth of Putin's invincible army'

June 2, 2023

Recent drone attacks and the shelling of a Russian border town have forced residents to flee their homes, sowing panic and fear. The Kremlin has downplayed the raids, but experts think they reveal Putin's weaknesses.

Parents and children from Belgorod Region arrive at the Landysh health camp for temporary accommodation
Parents and children from the Belgorod Region have been sent to temporary accommodation, as reported by Russia's state news agency TASSImage: Mikhail Tokmakov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

"Early in the morning, we left the town under the bombings and shelling. We left all our belongings. We are terrified," Galina, a native of Shebekino, told DW.

Galina was among a group of Shebekino residents who chose to leave the town in the Belgorod region when it came under heavy attack on Thursday. The hostilities in the town continued on Friday, resulting in some 2,500 people being displaced to temporary shelters, according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. Local authorities arranged an evacuation, but some residents found it difficult to escape the town.

"The evacuation was organized very poorly; it was more like word of mouth," said Svetlana, another local resident. "I couldn't reach the provided hotline numbers. I heard the dial tone and a voice saying, 'Please wait. The number you have dialed is currently unavailable.' I had to look for a person who could take me out myself."

Russia says its border region shelled by Ukraine

Shebekino, with its 40,000 inhabitants, is located some 5 kilometers (3 miles) away from Russia's southwestern border with Ukraine. Locals said the town has been shelled on and off for the past few months, but the most recent attack on Thursday was unprecedented in its intensity and left the town paralyzed and half empty. Social media footage shared by local news outlets showed streets shrouded in smoke, destroyed buildings and roads covered in missile debris.

According to local authorities, at least 12 people were wounded and two women were killed in the past 48 hours.

Incursions on Russian territory increasingly common

Pro-Ukrainian militants from the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps claimed to have entered Shebekino on Thursday, stating they were "going to liberate all of Russia, from Belgorod to Vladivostok." The Ukrainian government has denied any involvement with the militants, though one Ukrainian military official has acknowledged "cooperating" with the groups.

A look at Ukraine's use of drones

Earlier in May, these self-proclaimed "volunteer" groups purportedly made up of Russians fighting on the Ukrainian side carried out incursions across the front line of the Belgorod region. The attacks were widely perceived by observers as an embarrassment for the Kremlin, and raised concerns that front-line territories in Russia could be vulnerable to attack.

'We don't know who will protect us'

Locals are also worried. "We don't know who will protect us, who will help us," said a student in a video posted to Telegram, addressing the Russian government and voicing the anger of many living in the region. "Why do we have to leave the town on our own? Push the front line further [away from us] and save the Belgorod region and Shebekino."

Given the increasing number of raids by militants on Russian soil in recent weeks, some Belgorod residents have asked the local governor to declare a state of emergency in the area that will allow them to receive state compensation.

They told DW that they had felt left behind by the authorities. "Does our government need us?" asked Svetlana. "They see people from border zones as disposable."

Children from Belgorod Region arrive at the Landysh health camp for temporary accommodation
Some 300 children from the Shebekino and Graivoron districts were evacuated on Thursday, as seen in this photo provided by Russia's state news agency TASSImage: Mikhail Tokmakov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

In conversation with DW, some residents were critical of the war — a view they cannot openly share because, they explained, they are in the minority in Shebekino.

"We should withdraw our troops from foreign territory, return Crimea and the occupied territories to Ukraine; the authorities have to take care of their own population first," said Alina, who, like the others, didn't want to give her full name.

Kremlin tries to brush off Belgorod attacks

Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn't publicly expressed much concern about the attacks on the border regions. On Thursday, the day of the most intensive attacks in Shebekino, he was calmly taking questions from schoolchildren, one of whom wondered whether he was more powerful than Santa Claus.

Asked about the drone attacks in Shebekino, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov simply said, "Certainly this cannot affect the course of special military operation," seemingly downplaying the strikes.

As political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on Wednesday, Putin's strategy is to "keep quiet where possible, to present failures as successes, and to not dwell on the attacks: then there will be no need to react or make excuses. In his dealings with domestic institutions and the elite, Putin has long been guided by the same mantra of 'Don't make a big deal of it.'"

A burned Russian armored army vehicle lies in the forests around Vysokopillya
As Russian troops withdrew from Kherson province in late 2022, they abandoned vehicles and equipmentImage: Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA/IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

Kremlin 'looking increasingly helpless and confused'

But Stanovaya thinks Putin's usual playbook has begun to backfire. "People want to see strong leadership, but right now, that leadership is looking increasingly helpless and confused," she wrote.

Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, thinks the recent attacks on Russian territory could have an impact on the public's perception of the Russian leadership and the war in Ukraine.

"The raids in Belgorod completely destroy the myth of Putin's invincible army. They not only don't know how to advance, they're just as bad at defending," he said on Telegram.

"Nothing can destroy the basis for public support under an authoritarian government more than [weakness]."

Edited by: Martin Kuebler