Moscow’s local allies have been told that “Russia is here forever.” Now they are fleeing Ukraine | Ukraine

JA few weeks ago, Irina was working in the Russian occupation administration in Kupyansk, a major city in northern Ukraine that was captured days after Vladimir Putin launched his war against the country.

But then, as Russian troops fled the city and the Ukrainian army recaptured occupied territories in the north of the country, she and her family fled what they thought was quick punishment for collaborating with the force. Russian invasion.

Evidence from the newly recaptured territories indicates that Russian troops routinely used violence to quell any local dissent and maintain control. At the same time, some said they welcomed and helped the Russians. Others heeded the insistence of Moscow-based officials that they were here forever and decided to cooperate or simply try to live quietly under Russian rule.

For Moscow’s local allies, the sudden retreat of Russian forces, which ceded villages and towns with little resistance, was a reversal bordering on betrayal.

“Everyone told us we were here now, we are here, you have nothing to fear,” Irina said, recalling the promises of officials sent from Moscow. She had taken a job in the accounting department of the new local administration set up by Russia, she said. “Five days ago, they told us they would never leave. And three days later we were under shelling… And we don’t understand anything [about the offensive].

“We don’t understand what the point of all this is,” she said of the Russian military operation.

For months, Russia has told people in occupied parts of Ukraine that it is here to stay. The ruble was introduced, pensioners were told they would receive Russian pensions, and pro-Russian residents were hired into the ranks of civil servants.

“The fact is obvious that Russia will never leave,” said Andrei Turchak, a leader of the ruling United Russia party, during a visit to Kupyansk in July. “Russia will never leave here. And all necessary help will be provided.

This vow, along with the threat of violence, was crucial in projecting Moscow’s power into the towns and villages of Ukraine by assuring willing residents that they would never have to be punished as traitors or collaborators.

Today, Russia’s withdrawal has dealt a devastating blow to the image of the Russian armed forces and the Kremlin among some of their most willing supporters in Ukraine.

Ukraine has pledged to catch locals who have collaborated with the Russian military or cooperated with Russian-installed governments. Cases can result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years. President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Wednesday that Ukrainian forces were seeking to root out “the remnants of occupiers and sabotage groups” in recovered towns and villages in the Kharkiv region.

In Belgorod, a Russian region that borders Kharkiv, the governor’s office said nearly 1,400 people are housed in a temporary camp after crossing the Ukrainian border. Many are families with children who fled the fighting. Hundreds more people are likely to stay in rented apartments or with relatives.

At a small aid distribution center in the city, half a dozen Ukrainians who had recently fled to Russia said they were stunned by Moscow’s inability to hold on to the Kharkiv region and to resist the successful Ukrainian counter-offensive which recaptured 8,000 km2 (3,100 km2 miles) of territory in just a few weeks.

“People there believed the Russian troops, they said we won’t leave you, we’ve lost so many people and we won’t leave you,” said Alexander, 44, who fled a village neighbor with his wife and son. “Then they suddenly withdrew. They took several months to collect all this territory and then they abandoned it in two days. They don’t understand what happened. »

Alexander, a skilled pipe welder, said he had not worked for Russia and had not been employed since the start of the war. He had wanted to leave his village, which quickly fell into Russian hands at the start of the war, because he “didn’t have a job or school, and I have to dress my child and send him to school”.

They had planned to join a brother in Poland, but Alexander was later wounded by a shell and they fled to stay with a relative in Russia instead.

They left, he said, not because they opposed a return to Ukrainian rule, but because of the danger of war. “It was driving us into hysteria,” he said. “We took it as long as we could.”

Like others, he asked not to be identified by his last name. He feared being considered a traitor for fleeing to Russia. He said he still hoped to return home to visit his parents in Ukraine.

Moscow’s efforts to integrate the territories by publicly offering donations while enforcing a culture of fear in occupied Ukraine have been seen as a prelude to formal annexation that could take place in some areas as early as this fall.

But the lack of security signaled by Russia’s sudden withdrawal has also shaken the confidence some had and is making it more difficult in the territories Moscow continues to hold.

“We should have left earlier,” said Sergei, Irina’s boyfriend, who worked at the local railway. It was now difficult to find accommodation in Belgorod, he said, where thousands of people have moved since the start of the war.

Both Irina and Sergei said they still supported Russia in the war, but believed less that it could protect the partisans in Ukraine.

“Now I worry about the people of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia,” Irina said, referring to the southern regions of Ukraine also occupied by Russia. “We also tell them, ‘We’re not going to leave.’ But if you look at what happened near Kharkiv, then no one can say what will happen tomorrow.

Why is Vladimir Putin so obsessed with Ukraine?

According to numerous accounts, Russian troops themselves and some of the main Kremlin supporters have said that Russia is in danger of losing its supporters in occupied Ukraine.

“People here are waiting for us to start,” Alexander Sladkov, a Russian war correspondent, said in a television report. “For us to hit them so hard they end up on their backs. That is to say a knockout. It’s very difficult to win on points. We are losing a lot of people, we have injuries.

Catching himself, he added, “And we have great successes.”

Russia hasn’t had much success lately. And its problems could deepen further as cities held by Russia since the early weeks of the war begin to emerge from isolation and tell tales of life under occupation.

It also triggered an exodus of people to the border. Earlier this week, Yulia Nemchinova, a local activist who brings aid to Ukrainian refugees in Russia, captured video of some of the hundreds of cars that had fled from the Kharkiv region to the Russian border.

A Ukrainian official described one such convoy from the Luhansk region as collaborators “packing up their loot, packing up their families and leaving.” Nemchinova, who holds pro-Russian views, confirmed that many inside feared being labeled collaborators, although she described them as locals who she said were “just trying to live”.

“People were told that Russia was here forever,” she said. “They were in shock. People were just black. They were literally black in color. I asked people where they were going, they said: to Russia. Just nowhere. Just to cross the border.

At the help center, most said they would only return to Ukraine if Russia regained the territory. Others said they would never come back at all, even if Russia came back.

“We will never go back,” said Sergei, Irina’s boyfriend, who was carrying a small bag with shoes and sweaters from the help center. “There is nothing for us to go back.”

theguardian Gt

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