After a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeast of the country, the messy war that Russian President Vladimir Putin started is now being fought directly on his doorstep, with artillery strikes hitting military targets in Russia and Russian officials in cities and towns along the border ordering hasty evacuations.
On Saturday, a new round of strikes hit the Belgorod region in Western Russia, killing at least one person and wounding two.
On Friday, Ukraine reportedly struck the base of the Russian 3rd Motorized Rifle Division near Valuyki, just nine miles north of the Russia—Ukraine border. Russian officials did not acknowledge that a military target was hit but said one civilian died, and the local electrical grid experienced a temporary disruption.
Russia blamed the attacks on Ukraine, but Kyiv did not claim responsibility for striking targets in Russian territory.
Kyiv has assured U.S. officials that donated weapons would not be used to strike targets inside Russia proper. But Ukrainian forces are now so close to the border that they can hit targets using their own less-advanced weaponry.
That Russian citizens are starting to seriously feel the impact of the war directly is another new source of pressure on Putin, who returned home this weekend from a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan where he faced a remarkable public rebuke by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and questions about the war from Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In a stunning public rebuke, Modi told Putin that “today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this.” That followed an acknowledgment by Putin that he had heard “concerns and questions” about the war from the Chinese president.
Ukraine has made stunning advances in the Kharkiv region, in the northeast of the country, in the past two weeks. During its advances, it has also uncovered hundreds of mass graves and stories of Russian forces terrorizing residents in the liberated city of Izyum.
Ukrainian officials have cited the gains and the evidence of torture and killings to reiterate pleas for modern battle tanks and other heavily armored vehicles which NATO allies have been slow to send.
Valuyki and Krasny Khutor are among dozens of small settlements in Russia that the Russian military uses as a staging ground, putting them in the middle of Moscow’s faltering invasion and Kyiv’s mounting counteroffensive.
The local governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, has ordered the evacuation of hundreds of people and shut down schools in border towns over the past months. But now the authorities in Belgorod are under increasing pressure from unnerved residents who are experiencing what many Ukrainians have lived with for months: nighttime explosions, destroyed homes and sometimes casualties.
“I’m asking once again, where is our army, the one that must be protecting us?” Belgorod resident Tatyana Bogacheva wrote on Gladkov’s VKontakte social media page. “We are on the border; they are shooting at us, so we need an army and protection. Who will wake up the President?”
Russian forces have been depleted after battlefield blunders and are scrambling to find personnel and working equipment to hold their ground in northeastern Ukraine. A recent hasty retreat from Izyum and Balakliya as well as concerns among local Russians who fear the war is coming home appear to have prompted Moscow to reinforce the border with young conscripts.
Russian soldiers who had been conscripted to serve in the 1st Guards Motor Rifle Regiment of the Taman Division as part of this year’s spring draft are reportedly being transferred from the Moscow region to “protect the state border.”
The BBC Russian Service, citing the families of troops, reported that many conscripts in the Taman Division had died at the beginning of the invasion and those who survived were returned to the Russian territory. But instead of returning to headquarters in Naro-Fominsk near Moscow, they were stationed in Valuyki. The new group of conscripts is supposed to replace those who are due to be demobilized in October, the BBC said.
According to Russian laws, conscripts can’t be sent into battle unless they have at least four months of training. Putin has repeatedly denied that Russia is using conscripts in Ukraine. But the country’s defense ministry acknowledged as early as March that some had been mistakenly sent to fight.
Russia’s problems along the border are drawing criticism from staunch pro-Kremlin quarters inside Ukraine as well. “I am curious whether the Russian leadership is going to somehow react to the constant shelling of Russian territory?” Igor Girkin, a hard-line former commander of separatists in Ukraine, lamented in his Telegram blog. “Or do I understand correctly that the Kremlin no longer considers the Belgorod region to be the territory of Russia?”
The war also appears to be weakening Russia’s capacity to put out fires to the south, in the region the Kremlin has long considered its backyard.
This week, for example, Armenia sought Russia’s help amid a renewed Azerbaijani attack on its border towns, according to the country’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who formally appealed to the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional security alliance of post-Soviet states, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
But the response so far has been slow and tepid, perhaps undermining Armenia’s trust in Moscow as an ally and in the CSTO as a reliable security broker.
Azerbaijan is not part of the CSTO but is backed by Turkey, an essential mediator in the Ukrainian war. Azerbaijan accused Armenia of “provocations” in the border area, something Yerevan denies.
More than 200 officers have been killed on both sides this week, in what turned into the deadliest confrontation since the six-week war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.
On Friday, in a face-to-face meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev said the border conflict had “stabilized,” and a cease fire had been in place for the last three days.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday she plans to make a weekend visit to Armenia.