The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, on the border with Ukraine, has called on residents to evacuate areas that have been subjected to intense shelling in recent days.
“I ask that the inhabitants of the localities that have been shelled, in particular those in the Chebekino district, follow the instructions of the authorities and temporarily leave their homes”, said Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov on Sunday.
Chebekino, a town with a population of 40,000, has been hit by hundreds of artillery shells this week. Several people have been killed, and thousands of civilians have been forced to flee. According to Gladkov, further evacuations will “save lives”.
He added that shelling hit the Chebekino and Volokonovski districts last night, causing “a lot of damage” but no casualties. He also said that more than 4,000 people who had fled the shelling were being housed temporarily in reception centres in the region.
According to the regional authorities, attacks in the region on Friday and Saturday left at least seven people dead and around 30 injured.
Despite the Kremlin’s efforts to play down any sign of violence on Russian territory, the conflict with Ukraine is now directly affecting certain Russian border regions, not just Belgorod.
On Thursday, the Russian army claimed to have repelled a Ukrainian attempt to “invade” the Belgorod region, a week after a spectacular incursion by armed men that caused shock and demonstrated the vulnerability of Russia’s borders.
The incursions were claimed by groups who called themselves Russian but aligned themselves with Kyiv. The Ukrainian authorities deny any involvement.
With the Russian military struggling to make strategic gains and boost morale among lower-level personnel ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, Wagner paramilitary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has said he and his forces are ready to deploy in Belgorod to protect Russian civilians and territory.
In an audio message released via his own press service, Prigozhin made it plain that his forces would not wait for an official “invitation” from the Russian Ministry of Defence, which he has repeatedly criticised in public for the poor execution of the invasion.
“The only thing we’ll be asking for is ammunition, so that we don’t arrive, as we say back home, bare-arsed in the cold”, Mr Prigozhin joked.