Two years after Putin ordered a war on Ukraine, what’s changed in Russia?

While fears simmer on the border near Ukraine, life goes on as usual in most of Russia as Putin prepares for a predictable election.

Video Duration 11 minutes 36 seconds 11:36By Al Jazeera StaffPublished On 23 Feb 202423 Feb 2024

On December 30, a volley of rocket fire hit the Russian city of Belgorod near the Ukrainian border.

“I live in the very centre of the city, and three or four things fell just outside my home. I don’t know whether it was a shell or shrapnel or what,” said 21-year-old Yuliya, a journalist from Belgorod who requested Al Jazeera use only her first name.

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“The buildings nearby were seriously damaged. My own building was fine, but it was very frightening, very loud. In that moment, you can only think, ‘This is the end.’’”

Belgorod’s been bombarded several times since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but December’s barrage was the deadliest.

At least 25 civilians, among them five children, were killed in the attack blamed on Ukraine’s armed forces.

For the residents of the Russian border city, the war had come home.

“The atmosphere in the city shifted dramatically since December 30 because people in Belgorod finally felt what war is, that it’s nearby and that it’s not so safe in the city as it seemed,” Yuliya said. “Life has greatly changed.”

She said children now know what it’s like to be shelled, recognise the sound of air raid sirens and know how to tie a tourniquet.

“Now the council doesn’t discuss how many tulips to plant for the summer festivals but how to paint the insides of bomb shelters. I think life in Belgorod will never be the same.”

Economy

In the weeks after the invasion on February 24, 2022, the picture looked bleak for Russia as the rouble crashed and foreign investors fled.

But the economy has withstood sanctions.

“The Russian economy went through multiple stress tests,” economist Artem Kochnev said.

“The first one was in 2014 when the first round of sanctions was introduced and Russia took some lessons from that specifically by building a national financial infrastructure and tightening the grip over the financial sector. The second was the COVID crisis and how they tried to manage logistics in very rapidly changing circumstances. So they had some experience they could draw upon.”

Kochnev added that the gradual implementation of sanctions gave Russia time to readjust its oil exports.

The European Union halted its imports from Russia, so Russia turned to China and India instead, using a “shadow fleet” of barges registered with shell companies in third countries such as Cameroon.

Russia also had vast cash reserves from its petroleum sales, which were originally set aside to offset the shock from any drop in oil prices.

“Now this money has been used for completely another purpose – financing the war,” Kochnev said.

“That’s a fiscal stimulus which is actually larger than what government has put into the economy during the COVID crisis.”

Major global brands, such as McDonalds and Starbucks, have left Russia, forced to sell off their assets far below market value to buyers approved by a government committee before being rebranded. For example, Starbucks has become Stars Coffee.

A few firms have effectively been nationalised.

According to Kochnev, the assets went mainly to powerful and well-connected individuals, which may have created some friction between elites.

Putin’s position

Despite a dramatic mutiny by Wagner mercenaries last year, Putin’s position appears to be stable.

He is expected to win a fifth six-year presidential term in the upcoming March election.

Assuming he lasts until the end of his term, he’d be the longest-serving Russian leader since the tsars, overtaking even Josef Stalin.

Two candidates running on an anti-war platform, Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, were disqualified by the Central Election Commission despite neither being considered a serious contender against Putin.

The war has certainly left an impact on society: After a decade of decline, problematic drinking has reportedly become more common, which some health experts have attributed to geopolitical confrontations.

But on the whole, life goes on.

There are still music concerts and exhibitions, and customers can still buy foreign goods, such as Coca-Cola, which have been rerouted through third countries such as Uzbekistan. Some Russians are even upbeat.

“I’ve heard a lot about propaganda in the West. It makes people idiots,” 51-year-old Alec from St Petersburg said.

“But absolutely everything is still here. You think people don’t want to make money? Nothing has changed except the psychopathic liberals have left. Whether we like it or not, Russia has started it’s great game, and it’s very interesting to see. You have to be here to understand it.”

The front lines

On the front lines in Ukraine, nearly 45,000 Russians have been killed in action since February 2022, the independent outlet MediaZona has reported. That is three times the Red Army’s losses during its decade-long occupation of Afghanistan.

Even so, Russia has greater resources in terms of manpower than Ukraine.

Since Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive in the summer, Russian forces have slowly inched forward, capturing the town of Avdiivka this month after a fierce, months-long battle.

“Russia’s hidden mobilisation has continued,” said Oleg Ignatov, senior Russia analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.

“Regions are given the number of contract soldiers they have to call up. As a result, regional officials persuade whoever they can to sign up. These include debtors, people with financial and lifestyle problems, single men, ex-criminals and so on as well as [state employees]. The military, in turn, persuades conscripts to sign a contract. Also, more foreigners are coming to the front. But apparently, such methods work. The Russian army manages to replenish its ranks faster than the Ukrainian army.”

Russia’s defence industry appears to still be functioning at full capacity, pumping out shells to be fired on Ukrainian positions.

“Russian military production has grown significantly, including by restoring production at old Soviet factories,” Ignatov added.

“Russia has been able to outpace Western ammunition supplies and maintain its advantage in equipment and long-range weapons. Sanctions, of course, increase the price of production and create logistical problems but do not hinder the production of shells and hardly prevent Russia from modernising old Soviet equipment and sending it to the front. Russia’s industrial capability to produce weapons is very large but not enough to create a decisive advantage, so Russia buys ammunition from North Korea.”

Besides the shelling of Belgorod, there have been several cross-border raids by the Russian Volunteer Corps, a militia of Russian citizens with far-right nationalist views fighting for Ukraine, engaging in brief skirmishes with Russian forces and border guards before falling back.

Their strategic impact on the war has been limited but has undermined Russia’s sense of security. Meanwhile, drones have targeted Russia’s oil infrastructure, spectacularly blowing up a fuel export terminal near St Petersburg in January.

“Ukraine has conducted a series of successful attacks on Russian infrastructure and apparently managed to destroy several units of valuable and expensive equipment, but in general, these attacks do not change the overall picture, which is still in Russia’s favour,” Ignatov said.

This will bring little comfort to Yuliya, whose heart still races whenever she steps outside.

“Some of my friends who’ve left Russia and see the shelling of our city say, ‘Well, what did you expect? People are dying in Ukraine as well, and rockets are flying from Belgorod to Kharkiv,’” she said. “But I live here, and no matter what I do, I can’t stop these rockets. No one in our city can. So I don’t know how you can say that we had it coming. It’s very upsetting.”

Source: Al Jazeera