Residents flee Russia’s Belgorod region amid deadly cross-border attacks from Ukraine

Firefighters extinguish burning cars after a Ukrainian strike on Belgorod, Russia, December 30, 2023.

Russia has begun to evacuate residents from the border region of Belgorod following a surge in deadly Ukrainian strikes, in a rare admission of the dangers posed by a war from which Moscow has sought to isolate its citizens.

Approximately 300 residents of Belgorod city “decided to temporarily move” to accommodation centers in cities elsewhere in the region, governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said Monday.

Gladkov on Friday offered to help any Belgorod residents worried by the recent spate of Ukrainian attacks on the region, which borders northeastern Ukraine.

Kyiv resumed its targeting of the Russian region after Moscow on December 29 unleashed its biggest air attack on Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion. The next day, retaliatory Ukrainian strikes on Belgorod killed at least 25 people, prompting more waves of Russian strikes in a bloody start to the new year.

In Monday’s message, Gladkov said his office had received 1,300 applications to send children from Belgorod to school camps in other regions, and that his colleagues from the regions of Voronezh, Kaluga, Tambov, and Yaroslavl – some distance from Belgorod – are “ready to help us.”

Belgorod authorities have begun restoration works following the recent Ukrainian shelling attacks, Gladkov said, and promised to update residents on the progress of these efforts.

Russia launched another wave of air strikes across Ukraine on Monday morning, killing at least four people and injuring 38, Ukraine’s National Police said in a statement. The attacks targeted Kharkiv region in the east of the country, Dnipropetrovsk in the center, Zaporizhzhia further south and Khmelnytskyi in the west.

Russia fired 59 drones and missiles during the attack, according to Ukraine’s Air Force, which said it had shot down 18 of the cruise missiles and eight of the drones.

Ukraine has consistently targeted Russian regions near the border, but its December 30 attack on Belgorod is thought to be one of the single deadliest incidents reported.

A shopping mall was damaged in Ukraine’s strike on Belgorod, December 30, 2023.

The strikes came after Russia fired 158 drones and missiles, including hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, at civilian targets across Ukraine, killing at least 47 people.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had used “nearly every type of weapon in its arsenal” in the “terrorist strikes,” to which he pledged Ukraine’s military would respond.

The deadly strikes on Belgorod, while not comparable to the destruction wrought on Ukraine, are the latest in a series of efforts by Ukraine to bring the war home to Russians.

“People realized there really is a war going on and it’s come now to Belgorod, maybe not for the first time but the most grave and frightening,” a Belgorod resident told Reuters in the wake of the December 30 strike.

In the wake of the attack, Gladkov said Friday he had received messages on social media from residents saying: “We are scared, help us go to a safe place.”

The Defense Intelligence said it had obtained information that the “top Russian military leadership” had planned an inspection of Russian positions in the area after personnel had complained about “poor service conditions.” In response, Ukraine planned a “special operation” which it said had inflicted losses in the enemy, without providing casualty figures.

The relative peace in Belgorod compared to Ukraine’s neighboring Kharkiv region has on a number of occasions been shattered. The most dramatic instance came in May 2023, when the Freedom of Russia Legion – a group of anti-Putin Russian nationals who are aligned with the Ukrainian army – mounted a surprise attack on the region, temporarily taking control of a border post and giving the world dramatic images of Russians taking up arms against the Kremlin.

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