But when Russian troops began to withdraw from the city and the Ukrainian army retook the occupied territories in the north of the country, she and her family decided to flee, fearing punishment for collaborating with the Russian invasion forces.
Evidence from the recaptured territories shows that the Russian military regularly used violence to quell local discontent and maintain control. At the same time, some Ukrainians accepted the Russians and helped them. Others believed Moscow officials’ assertion that the Russians were here for good and decided to cooperate or at least try to live peacefully under Russian rule.
For Moscow’s local allies, the sudden retreat of Russian forces, which handed over some villages and towns to the Ukrainians almost without resistance, is a turn almost tantamount to treason.
“Everyone told us that now we are here, we are here, you have nothing to fear,” said Irina, recalling the promises of officials sent by Moscow. According to the woman, she got a job in the accounting department of the new local administration established by the Russians. “Five days ago they told us that they would never leave. And three days later we came under fire… We are nothing [apie puolimą] we don’t understand”, she said.
“We don’t understand the point of all this,” she said of the Russian military operation.
For months, Moscow assured people living in the occupied regions of Ukraine that the Russians would not retreat anywhere. The ruble was introduced, pensioners were told they would receive Russian pensions, and pro-Russian residents were employed in government structures.
“The fact is obvious – the Russians will never leave here,” Andrey Turchak, leader of Russia’s ruling United Russia party, said during a visit to Kupyansk in July. – Russia will never leave Ukraine. And all necessary help will be provided.”
This promise (along with the threat of violence) was crucial to consolidating Moscow’s power in Ukrainian towns and villages, ensuring that pro-Russian locals would never face punishment as traitors or collaborators.
Now, in the eyes of some of its staunchest supporters, the Russian withdrawal has dealt a severe blow to the image of the Russian armed forces and the Kremlin.
Ukraine has vowed to arrest locals who have collaborated with the Russian army or cooperated with Russian-installed governments. For this, they face up to 15 years in prison. President Volodymyr Zelenskyi said on Wednesday that Ukrainian forces were working to eliminate “the remnants of occupiers and sabotage groups” in the recaptured towns and villages of the Kharkiv region.
The governor’s office in Belgorod, a Russian region bordering Kharkiv, said nearly 1,400 people were housed in a makeshift camp after crossing the border into Ukraine.
Many of them are families with children fleeing the fighting. Hundreds more are likely to be staying in rented apartments or with relatives.
At a small charity distribution center, half a dozen Ukrainians who recently fled to Russia said they were stunned by Moscow’s failure to hold onto the Kharkiv area and counter a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that saw Ukrainians retake 8,000 square kilometers of their territory in just a few weeks.
“People believed the Russian army, which said they would not leave us, that they had lost many people, and they certainly would not abandon us,” complained 44-year-old Alexander, who fled from a nearby village with his wife and son. – But they suddenly started and retreated. It took the Russians several months to occupy all of this territory, and then they abandoned it in just two days. They themselves don’t understand what happened.”
Alexander, a skilled pipe welder, said he had not worked for the Russians and had not had a job since the start of the war. He wanted to leave the village, which passed into the hands of the Russians in the very first days of the war, because “I neither worked nor studied, and I need to dress my child and send him to school.”
The family planned to join Alexander’s brother in Poland, but then he was injured by an exploding shell and they fled to live with a relative in Russia.
According to Alexander, they left not because they opposed the return of Ukrainian power, but because of the danger of war. “It drove us into hysteria,” he admitted. “We held on as long as we could.”
Like others, the man asked not to be named. He fears that he may be considered a traitor for escaping to Russia. He said he still intended to return home to visit his parents who remained in Ukraine.
Moscow’s efforts to integrate territories by distributing benefits to residents and at the same time establishing a culture of fear in occupied Ukraine were seen as a prelude to official annexation, which could take place in some regions as early as this fall.
But the lack of stability demonstrated by Russia’s sudden withdrawal has shaken public confidence and makes it more difficult for it to entrench itself in territories that remain in Moscow’s hands.
“You should have left earlier,” said Irina’s boyfriend Sergej, who worked at the local railway. According to him, it is now difficult to find a place to stay in Belgorod because thousands of people have moved to the city since the beginning of the war.
Irina and Sergey said they still support Russia in the war, but they no longer believe it can protect its supporters in Ukraine.
“Now I’m worried about the people left in Kherson and Zaporizhia,” Irina said, referring to the regions of southern Ukraine also occupied by Russia. – After all, they are also told: “We will not go anywhere.” But if you look at what happened in the vicinity of Kharkiv, no one can say what will happen tomorrow.”
Russian soldiers themselves and some of the Kremlin’s most ardent supporters have expressed the view that Russia is in danger of losing its supporters in occupied Ukraine.
“People here are waiting for us to start,” Russian war correspondent Alexander Sladkov said in a television report. “To hit them so hard that they fall on their shoulders.” To be knocked out, so to speak. But it is very difficult to win points. We have lost a large number of people, we are injured.”
Collecting himself, he added: “But we also secured big victories.”
Russia has been counting few of those victories lately. Moreover, her worries may grow even more as cities occupied by Russia since the first weeks of the war begin to emerge from isolation and tell the story of life under occupation.
It also encouraged people to leave the country. Earlier this week, Yulia Nemchinova, a local activist who helps Ukrainian refugees in Russia, filmed hundreds of cars fleeing the Kharkiv region and crossing the Russian border.
One Ukrainian official described such a convoy from the Luhansk region as collaborators “loading their booty, packing their families and leaving.” Ms. Nemchynova, who is pro-Russian, confirmed that many of these Ukrainians fear being labeled as collaborators, although she described them as locals who she said were “just trying to survive.”
“People were told the Russians were here for good,” she said. – They were in shock. People were just black. Literally black. I asked people where they were going, they said: to Russia. Anywhere. Just crossing the border.”
At the charity center, most said they would only return to Ukraine if Russia occupied its territory again. Others said they would never return, even if the Russians returned to power.
“We’re never going back,” said Irina’s boyfriend, Sergey, carrying a bag of shoes and sweaters he got at a charity center. “We have nothing to come back for.”
It is strictly forbidden to use the information published by DELFI on other websites, media or elsewhere or to distribute our material in any form without consent, and if consent is obtained, it is necessary to credit DELFI as the source.