“They told us that we had nothing to fear, that they would not leave again,” Irina describes the arrival of the Russians in Kupyansk, northern Ukraine. A young woman later accepted a job as an accountant in the new Russian administration, convinced that the city would not return to Kiev’s control. The retreat of the occupiers and the arrival of the Ukrainian army caught her by surprise.
Fearing punishment for collaborating with the occupation forces, she therefore fled to Belgorod, Russia, about forty kilometers north of the border with Ukraine.
For months, Moscow told the people in the occupied places of the Kharkiv region that it would stay forever. She introduced the ruble, promised pensions to the elderly and recruited pro-Russian residents into her ranks. Some accepted Russian passports.
“We will stay and provide the necessary help,” Andrej Turchak, leader of Russia’s ruling United Russia party, proclaimed during his visit to Kupjansk in July. For many people willing to cooperate, this promise was a guarantee that they would not be accused of collaboration in the future. But that is what threatens them now.
Ukraine has vowed to find anyone who helped the Russian military or Kremlin-appointed authorities. The penalty is up to fifteen years in prison. According to President Volodymyr Zelenskyi, Ukrainian forces are now searching for “remains of occupiers and saboteurs” in Kupyansk, Izyum, Balakliya and other liberated places.
“Why did they even come when they left so easily?”
“People ask us how we feel about the special operation. We feel insecure and don’t understand why it’s happening at all,” Irina told The Guardian.
According to the Russian authorities, several hundred people from the occupied territories in Ukraine headed to the Belgorod region from Friday. Videos shared on social media over the weekend by locals show a convoy of cars heading towards the border. “Since then, 1,300 Ukrainian refugees have settled in the region,” said local governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. His claims cannot be independently verified.
A Russian teacher explains to Ukrainian children that Russian must survive:
A similar video was also shared by the governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, Serhii Hajday, on Friday. “The occupiers and their collaborators are running towards Russia. They pack their loot, their families and disappear,” he wrote on Telegram.
Some Ukrainians who fled to Belgorod either out of fear of punishment or intensification of fighting described being stunned by the Kremlin’s inability to resist the Ukrainian offensive. “It took the Russians months to get all that territory and then they left it in two days. I don’t understand what happened,” said Alexander, in his forties, who escaped with his wife and son from one of the now liberated villages.
Alexander said that he did not work for the Russians, but wanted to use the opportunity to escape from the war. “We were crazy about it. We couldn’t take it anymore,” he recounts.
The Kremlin is more or less silent about its retreat in northern Ukraine. The Ministry of Defense only said that the Russian army is moving towards Donbas in accordance with the plans. Russian state media also minimized information about the failure. Even in them, however, some expressed dissatisfaction with the situation.
According to The Wall Street Journal, most residents of Belgorod say they still trust the Kremlin’s plans. But some doubt whether Russia is waging war effectively. “An investigation needs to be carried out and find out if there was sabotage or incompetence,” thinks local lawyer Andrei Boržik.
Another resident anonymously told the newspaper that he went to Kupjansk and other towns in the occupied territories with supplies of medicine and food and other aid. “People were often left there for months without water or electricity. They lived in fear, had no connections and could not communicate with relatives,” said the man.
“I believe this was one of the failures of the Russian military. They did not return things to normal, so these people immediately accepted the Ukrainians when they returned on Friday. They didn’t get enough love from the Russians,” the resident thinks.