By Michael Birnbaum and Mary Ilyushina

April 28, 2022

The Washington Post

RIGA, Latvia — The Kremlin has sought to minimize discussion of Russian war losses inside Ukraine. But apparent Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil in the past week highlight how the conflict has spilled across the border, unsettling residents of regions near the border and threatening to upend President Vladimir Putin’s effort to insulate his citizens from the fighting he started.  In the wake of the shellings and strikes, local authorities are sounding alarms — as well as calling for revenge and in some cases evacuations — as they contend with the growing peril.

The attacks, which Ukrainian leaders have neither confirmed nor denied but which one senior adviser winkingly described as “karma” on Wednesday, suggest that Kyiv is increasingly able to reach into Russian territory as the war continues. Empowered by NATO’s military aid, Ukrainian troops are hitting infrastructure, military targets and, Russian authorities say, at least some villages. Russian citizens are now waking to the same explosions that Ukrainians have faced for more than two months, making the conflict far more immediate and dangerous.

At least 11 hits appear to have occurred since the fighting began Feb. 24, most of them since late last week. Most seem to have involved shelling or triggered Russian antiaircraft weaponry. A handful were suspicious explosions at Russian military facilities near the border.  They have drawn Russian fury. “The Anglo-Saxons publicly recommend that Ukraine move hostilities onto Russian territory. And supply it with the means to implement this plan,” Margarita Simonyan, editor of the state-run Russia Today news outlet, tweeted Thursday. “What choice are you giving us, idiots? Complete destruction of the remaining Ukraine? Nuclear strike?”

In recent days, residents of the most vulnerable areas have posted videos of apparent explosions and Russian antiaircraft defense rockets streaking into the nighttime sky.  “I think this is coming here,” one anxious witness can be heard saying, along with an expletive, in a video showing intense flames and a massive plume of thick smoke billowing over the city of Belgorod early Wednesday.

In another video filmed several hours later, what is described as a Russian humanitarian convoy comes under fire as it speeds across open fields in the afternoon sun.  “We are riding here, they are shelling us, we are trying to escape. God have mercy! This is scary,” Alena Berezovskaya, a pro-Kremlin activist and journalist, said in the clip that the state-run RIA Novosti outlet posted Thursday.

Berezovskaya sits in what looks like a military truck. Booms can be heard around her. The convoy was said to have come under attack in Zhuravlyovka, less than a mile into Russia, after delivering supplies to Russian-held territory near Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkiv.

She nervously adjusts her green helmet as the rolling Russian countryside streaks by her window, the fields bearing the first green blush of spring. “It’s scary on a human level, of course, but everything is in the hands of God,” she said.

With large portions of Russian border territory feeling a sense of vulnerability, local leaders have had little choice but to acknowledge what is happening to their residents and try to protect them. Early this month, authorities declared the second-highest terrorist threat level in regions closest to Ukraine. They advised residents to avoid gathering in large crowds.

Belgorod’s governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said Wednesday that he was woken up at 3:35 a.m. that day “from a loud noise, like an explosion.”

The governor of neighboring Kursk, Roman Starovoit, explained the loud banging sounds Kursk residents had heard as the work of Russian air defense equipment. On Monday, two Turkish-made Bayraktar drones were shot

down over the region, RIA Novosti reported, raising the possibility of serious danger for residents since the drones can be equipped with powerful weaponry.

Some expect that in the next stage of the war, attacks could be a near-daily occurrence. “We assume that some kind of missiles or Bayraktars will now be flying in and strike almost every day, and we will see many more such reports,” said Ruslan Leviev, founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent analytical group that uses open-source data to track military activities.

Few Ukrainians offer any sympathy, with an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky saying Russians should not be surprised to find themselves targeted.  “Sooner or later the debts will have to be repaid,” Mykhailo Podolyak wrote in Russian in a Telegram post that attributed the shellings, explosions and unexplained fires to the work of “divine intervention” after the relentless assault of Mariupol during the week leading up to Orthodox Easter.

Ukraine’s Western backers support strikes on military sites inside Russian territory. The country should “do whatever is necessary to defend against Russian aggression,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a congressional panel on Wednesday. It would be “legitimate under international law” for Ukraine to attack “the logistics structure of the Russian army,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC on Thursday.

Many NATO nations initially were cautious about providing weaponry that could reach deep into Russia. Those cautions have ebbed somewhat. But even without directly providing long-range equipment, the alliance can still backfill Ukraine’s stocks and enable it to take greater overall risks.

Given Russians’ broad support for the war, incursions on Russian soil are likely to provoke public calls for escalation, rather than the opposite, said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of France-based political analysis firm R. Politik. “Russian society is not ready for peace. Russian society expects that Ukraine will be defeated,” she said. “Everything that comes from Ukraine, like attacks on Russian territory, only fuels such sentiments.”

Yet such strikes, she added, also challenge the Kremlin’s domestic narrative that what is happening in Ukraine is a “special operation” — quick and fast — and not a war.  Attacks are more likely intended as messages to Russian leaders rather than efforts to turn the broader public against the fighting, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “People may perceive it as warning shots. But so far, warning shots are more for the Kremlin,” he said. “Ukraine’s substantial military capabilities are becoming evident, and it is even possible that the nature of the war in the border regions will change.”

Zhuravlyovka, the village where the humanitarian convoy was targeted Wednesday, has faced repeated incidents. At least two residents were injured during nighttime shelling on Monday, according to Gladkov, who wrote on the social network VKontakte that he wanted to evacuate the area “for a safer place” but that some residents were refusing. Village leader Anzhelika Samoilova recounted how she and other residents, many of them elderly, had spent the night in a basement for safety.  “These are horrific emotions. No one expected this. No one was prepared for this. When I saw this with my own eyes, I was shocked,” Samoilova said in a video posted to the governor’s VKontakte profile that showed a modest home with part of its roof blown away. “It was scary to come outside.”