The Guardian: Russia should have been here forever, but now its allies are fleeing Ukraine

The Guardian: Russia should have been here forever, but now its allies are fleeing Ukraine
The Guardian: Russia should have been here forever, but now its allies are fleeing Ukraine

Kyiv – Moscow’s local allies have heard that Russia will be in the occupied territories of Ukraine forever. However, in response to the recent successful Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region, they are now fleeing across the border for fear of being branded as collaborators, The Guardian wrote.

Until a few weeks ago, Irina was working for the Russian occupation administration in Kupjansk, a larger city in northeastern Ukraine. Russian troops took it days after Vladimir Putin launched a war against the neighboring country.

But when Russian troops fled the city and the Ukrainian army liberated the occupied territory, she and her family fled, fearing swift retribution for cooperating with the Russian invasion forces.

Evidence emerging from the newly conquered territories suggests that Russian troops regularly used violence to quell any local dissent and maintain control over the territory. But some said that they welcomed and helped the Russians of their own accord. Others simply listened to the insistence of representatives appointed by Moscow and agreed to cooperate in an effort to live in peace under Russian rule.

For Moscow’s local allies, the sudden retreat of Russian forces, which surrendered entire villages and towns without much resistance, was a reversal bordering on treason.

“Everyone told us that we are already here, that you have nothing to be afraid of,” Irina recalls of the promises of officials sent by Moscow to the occupied territory. She states that she took a job in the accounting department of the new local government installed by Russia. “Five days ago they told us that they would never leave. And three days later we were under fire … We don’t understand anything (…) We don’t understand what the point of it is,” he adds about the Russian military operation.

For months, Russia has been telling people in the occupied Ukrainian regions that it will stay there forever. It introduced the ruble, pensioners were told they would receive Russian pensions, and pro-Russian residents were recruited into the civil service. “Russia will never leave,” declared the leader of the Russian ruling United Russia party Andrey Turchak during a visit to Kupyansk in July.

This promise, along with the threat of violence, was key to the exercise of Russian power in Ukrainian towns and villages, guaranteeing locals that they would never face punishment for treason or collaboration. The Russian retreat has now dealt a devastating blow to the image of the Russian military and the Kremlin in the eyes of even some of their most willing supporters in Ukraine.

Ukraine has announced that it will seek to capture local residents who collaborated with the Russian military or the Russian-installed administration. These offenses are punishable by up to 15 years in prison. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday that Ukrainian forces were trying to root out “the remnants of occupiers and sabotage groups” in the recaptured towns and villages of the Kharkiv region.

In Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Kharkiv in Ukraine, the governor’s office said nearly 1,400 people who had crossed the border from Ukraine had been placed in a makeshift camp. Many of them are families with children who fled the fighting, hundreds more are probably staying in rented apartments or with relatives.

At a small aid distribution center in Belgorod, several Ukrainians who recently fled to Russia say they are stunned by Moscow’s inability to hold territory in the Kharkiv region and withstand a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that retook 8,000 square kilometers of territory within days.

“The people there trusted the Russian soldiers. They said: we will not leave you,” says 44-year-old Alexander, who fled from a nearby village with his wife and son. “Then they suddenly withdrew. It took them several months to collect all these territories, and then they left him in two days. They don’t understand what happened.”

The trained welder emphasizes that he did not work for Russia and has been unemployed since the beginning of the war. He wanted to leave his village, which was taken over by Russia in the first days of the war, because “he had neither a job nor a school” and “he needed to dress his child and send him to school”.

They planned to go to see their brother in Poland, but then Alexander was injured by a grenade, after which they fled to relatives in Russia. According to him, they left not because they reject the return of the Ukrainian government, but because of the danger they faced as a result of the war. “It was driving us crazy,” he says. “We hung on as long as we could.

Fearing that he might be considered a traitor, he, like the others, asked that his last name not be published. He says he still hopes to return home and visit his parents in Ukraine.

Moscow’s efforts to integrate territory in occupied Ukraine by offering benefits to citizens and the current atmosphere of fear were seen as a prelude to formal annexation, which could take place in some regions as early as this fall.

The lack of security signaled by Russia’s sudden retreat, however, has shaken the confidence that some people had in Russia and made it more difficult to manage the occupied territories that Moscow still holds.

According to multiple reports, Russian soldiers themselves, as well as some top Kremlin backers of the war, have come out saying that Russia is at risk of losing supporters in occupied Ukraine. “People here are waiting for us to start pounding so hard that (the opponent) goes down on his back. That means a knock-out. It’s very difficult to win on points,” Russian war correspondent Alexander Sladkov said in a TV report.

Russia’s troubles may continue to grow as cities that have been held by Russia since the first weeks of the war are now breaking out of isolation and beginning to publish stories about life under occupation.

The exodus of people to the borders also started the Russian failures. Earlier this week, pro-Russian activist Yuliya Nemchynov, who distributes aid to Ukrainian refugees in Russia, filmed a video of several hundred cars in which people were trying to flee the Kharkiv region to Russia. The activist says that many were worried that they would be labeled as collaborators, although according to her they are local residents who are “just trying to live”.

“People have been told that Russia is here forever,” he says. “They were in shock,” he adds, referring to the return of the occupied territories to Ukraine.

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The article is in Czech

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