The wailing of air raid sirens is common in Belgorod, a Russian border town whose residents are on edge following a Ukrainian missile attack over a New Year’s holiday weekend that left dozens dead and injured.
A spectacular explosion caused by a Ukrainian drone rocked a massive fuel export terminal on the Baltic Sea southwest of St. Petersburg this month, forcing energy company Novatek to suspend operations for several days.
Last week, an apparent drone attack at the Black Sea port of Tuapse in the southern Krasnodar region hit one of Russia’s largest refineries and sparked a fire, while another large refinery of the Volga town of Yaroslavl, north of Moscow, was attacked early Monday. , but authorities said there was no damage.
Strikes also took place on a gunpowder factory in the Tambov region, as well as on arms producers and military installations in the Bryansk, Smolensk and Tula regions.
Attacks like these deal a serious blow to President Vladimir PutinAttempts to reassure Russians that life in the country is largely untouched by the nearly two-year-old war.
“Ukraine has increased its ability to retaliate against Russia,” Michael Kofman, a military expert at the Carnegie Endowment, said in a recent podcast.
“There is an increase in Ukrainian attacks on Russian critical infrastructure, retaliatory attacks on cities like Belgorod and larger strikes on the Russian military base in Crimea,” he said.
As Putin intensifies his campaign ahead of presidential election in March, he wants to maintain an air of normalcy. But increasingly frequent Ukrainian attacks have raised the profile of the war on Russian soil, and there are other signs that the conflict is increasingly challenging the Kremlin’s tight control of the political stage.
Thousands of people across Russia have signed petitions support the long-term presidential candidacy of liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin, who made ending the war his main campaign goal. The wives of some soldiers arrested during a partial mobilization in 2022 have pushed for their release. And despite a strict ban on demonstrations, hundreds gathered in the province of Bashkortostanclashing with police to protest the imprisonment of a local activist.
Certainly the December 30 strike in Belgorod marked a bloody escalation in the minds of many Russians. A barrage of missiles hit the town of 340,000 people, about 40 kilometers east of the Ukrainian border, on a holiday weekend as people shopped, ice skated and watched the festivities of the New Year. Authorities said 25 people were killed, including five children, and more than 100 injured.
Residents described seeing victims with horrific injuries and pools of blood staining the sidewalks. One resident told media outlet RBC that he saw a stroller hit by shrapnel, with bloodied parents lying next to it. A pharmacy clerk said injured pedestrians rushed to his pharmacy for help.
“I see requests on social media from people writing: ‘We are afraid, help us get to safety!'” regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said, adding that several hundred people were evacuated, including more than 1,000 children. to camps in neighboring regions.
Religious holidays and festivities have been suppressed or canceled entirely.
The bombing damaged nearly 600 apartments and many private residences, and shrapnel littered more than 500 cars. Bus stops are reinforced with concrete blocks and sandbags.
Residents say they shudder at the slightest loud noise these days and are afraid to go outside. Schools in the city and near the border moved to online classes until mid-February.
This is not the first time Belgorod has been hit by war, with drone strikes and other attacks at the start of the conflict. In April 2023, an accidentally dropped bomb by a Russian warplane exploded in a street, leaving a huge crater and injuring two people.
On January 24, the Ministry of Defense declared that a military transport plane was shot down in the Belgorod region while transporting Ukrainian prisoners of war, killing all 74 people on board. Although Russia released what it called evidence that it said proved the presence of Ukrainian prisoners of war on board, Kiev officials disputed that information and instead accused Moscow of trying to use the incident to damage the morale of the Ukrainians.
Putin said the bombing of Belgorod on December 30 left him “seething with anger”, describing it as an act of desperation by kyiv following the failure of Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
“They want to show their people and their sponsors who give them money, weapons and ammunition that they can retaliate against Russia’s action,” he said. “They want to show that they can also do something, but instead of carrying out military tasks, they use barbaric methods and hit peaceful settlements with indiscriminate weapons. »
Throughout the war, the Kremlin claims that Russia has only struck military targets in Ukraine – despite ample evidence to the contrary and heavy civilian casualties in places like kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv.
Ukrainian officials rarely comment on strikes in Russia, but they emphasize their right to use all means to counter Moscow’s aggression.
At a news conference in August, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia had launched more than 6,500 missiles and 3,500 drones since the start of the war, most of them at civilian targets. In his New Year’s address to the nation, he vowed: “He who brings hell to our country will one day see it from his own window.” »
Russian hawks see Belgorod as a turning point allowing the Kremlin to raise the stakes in the war.
Alexander Dugin, a nationalist ideologue whose daughter was killed in a car bombing blamed on Ukraine in August 2022, argues that Russia should respond by intensifying fighting and declaring broad mobilization.
“I would like to believe that Russia will now take off its white gloves and start fighting for real,” he wrote. “Should we respect the rules at a time when a door to hell opens? Our task for 2024 is to restructure the state and society in order to put them on a military footing and devote all our resources to victory.”
Russian military bloggers highlight the difficulty of spotting Ukrainian rocket launchers moving to positions within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the border, emphasizing the need for better surveillance. Many have lamented Russia’s withdrawal from the area in September 2022 amid kyiv’s rapid counteroffensive, arguing that more Ukrainian territory should be captured to secure Belgorod and other border regions.
While fighting has largely frozen along the 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) front line in winter, missile and drone attacks in Russia have demonstrated Ukraine’s long-range strike capability, which strains Moscow’s security capabilities.
“Continued Ukrainian strikes in remote areas of Russia could therefore increase pressure on Russian air defense as a whole,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a recent analysis.
If this is kyiv’s plan, it is similar to what Russia did a year ago by targeting Ukraine’s power grid in the hope that repairs would take time. In the end, Ukraine managed to obtain enough spare parts and provide quick solutions, so Moscow’s campaign failed. Today, it is Russia that must find an adaptation strategy.
Sergey Vakulenko, an energy analyst at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said it could be difficult for Russian refineries to quickly repair the damage.
Even though small Ukrainian drones cannot cause major destruction, he said that “they can damage not only pipelines, but also compressors, valves, control units and other equipment that is difficult to replace due to Sanctions “.
“If we see the start of a wave of attacks on oil refineries in western Russia, the consequences will be serious,” Vakulenko said in a commentary.
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