Licence to shell

Ukraine’s army has been increasingly attacking Russian territories — some located hundreds of kilometres away from the front line. Novaya-Europe’s research

Licence to shell
Illustration: Novaya Gazeta Europe

Since the start of the war, border regions of Russia, according to Novaya Gazeta Europe’s calculations, have been shelled at least 350 times. A total of 168 civilians were killed or injured in these attacks, and over 1,000 residential buildings, schools, and infrastructure facilities were damaged. Since autumn, local governors have sometimes been reporting several attacks per day. And if before, shelling was only reported in small villages located near the border, now the Ukrainian army has begun “reaching” big cities and military facilities inside the country more frequently.

On Tuesday, it was reported that the US’ new military aid package to Ukraine includes 150-km range missiles — twice the range compared to before. Furthermore, according to statements made by Ukraine’s authorities, a new attack drone with a flight range of 1,000 km is almost ready — a range wide enough to strike upon Moscow where Pantsir air defence systems were recently installed on the roofs of administrative buildings.

Still, Russian authorities are in no rush to evacuate residents constantly under attack, while Russian air defence systems are only repelling 20% of air attacks. Novaya-Europe’s data team has looked into how the war boomerangs on Russia’s territory.

Over the year of war, Ukraine’s shelling of Russian territories has increased tenfold — while in March, a handful of shells made it to the territory of border villages, January saw Russian authorities report attacks 1.5 times per day on average.

The Belgorod region has the highest number of attacks on record. According to the local governor, over 50 villages and towns have been bombed. Furthermore, while last spring, only two small border villages, Zhuravlevka and Nekhoteevka, were being shelled most of the time, now shells reach towns with populations of over 10,000.

The town of Shebekino, with a population of 40,000, and the town district have been shelled at least 27 times this winter. The Ukrainian border is six kilometres away. Seventeen local residents were injured and five were killed. Dozens of locals are now homeless: 66 private and 11 multi-storey buildings were destroyed in shelling, as well as a mall and a market.

On 10 September, Russian troops surrendered the city of Vovchansk in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.

“Since then, there hasn’t been a day without shelling,” Shebekino resident Yulia says. “Our life is a game of Russian roulette. At first, I prayed to God before sleep so I would wake up alive. In the morning, I’d thank him for keeping us alive. We basically live day by day. We got used to shelling and shots fired — it doesn’t wake us up at night anymore. It’s weird when it gets quiet — it leads to anxiety that something horrible is about to happen. This is the burden of living near the border. But we continue on, we don’t give way to despair. For now, we can stomach it.”

The nearby town of Valuyki, according to local residents, also gets shelled daily. According to official data, three civilians were killed and six people were injured in shelling in the autumn and winter season.

“Since the start of the special military operation, our lives have changed significantly. But even if we were to leave, where to and for how long? What will happen to our homes? I have two kids, the oldest is 13, the youngest is three years old. They, of course, no longer go to neither kindergarten nor school — all of us are at home, they’re doing distance learning. This leads to some difficulties, but we believe that soon this nightmare will end,” Valuyki resident Tatiana Kulikova says.

The Kursk region is the second most frequently shelled region of Russia. Over the year of war, local authorities have reported 100 strikes, three of which involved the regional capital getting shelled.

Another border territory, Bryansk region, was shelled 39 times. Among the damaged towns is Klintsy, the second most populated town in the region. It is located 50 km away from the Ukrainian border — farther than the cities of Kursk and Belgorod. According to official data, Klintsy was shelled four times this winter alone.

The next most shelled territory is Russia-annexed Crimea. The Ukrainian Armed Forces usually have military facilities in Sevastopol as their target, including the Black Sea Fleet vessels. Since 24 February 2022, Ukraine has attacked Crimea at least 36 times, according to Russian authorities.

Russian and Crimean territories shelled since start of the war

For its part, Ukraine does not usually claim responsibility for shelling Russian territories. After military airfields located in the cities of Ryazan and Engels had been shelled last December, adviser to the president of Ukraine Mykhailo Podolyak noted that “the Earth is round” and that “if you launch something in the airspace of other countries, sooner or later unidentified flying objects will return to the launch point”.

According to official data, over the year of war, a total of 132 civilians were injured as a result of Russian territories getting shelled, and 36 were killed. The highest number of victims were from the Belgorod region.

Not for the living

On 18 December, Ukraine’s Armed Forces, according to Russian authorities’ statement, shelled the city of Belgorod. Despite air defence system being operational, one person was killed and ten were injured. Many were left homeless: missile remnants damaged 75 residential buildings and flats.

This was the third biggest shelling of the region in terms of destruction. In April, according to reports by local authorities, the Ukrainian artillery attacked the village of Golovchino, located 20 km away from the border — 76 private buildings were damaged. On 3 July, shards of a Tochka-U missile fell on 90 buildings in Belgorod.

The target of most of the attacks reported by the governors are civilian facilities rather than military ones — private houses in border villages within the range of artillery and mortar shells. Over the span of the war, over 1,000 civilian facilities have been damaged, 847 of them being private and multi-storey buildings.

“In many cases, Ukraine’s Armed Forces shell soldiers’ positions — this has been proven multiple times. Sometimes, they shell power nodes in response to Russia’s actions. Villages get damaged because they’re located close by,” military expert David Sharp explains. “However, a report of a village being hit with something that damaged a house is not enough to draw conclusions. It could be that there is a military base 100 metres away from the village? What were the Ukrainians firing from? Where from? Every attack should be considered separately and with the knowledge of all possible details.”

Every third shelling damages powerlines — border villages and towns have been left without electricity at least 100 times. The power usually gets restored pretty quickly in the cities; however, emergency crews do not even bother with the villages that get bombed daily.

“Sometimes, we are left without power for half a day, sometimes it gets turned back on instantly — it differs. However, in distant villages, for example the Khutor Pankov and the Krasnoye village, power lines are not being fixed due to the fear of shelling,” Yulia from Shebekino says.

At the end of November, the local governor said that the Belgorod region had already spent 13 billion rubles (€156 million) on war expenses, or 8% of all budgetary expenses in 2022. The money went to payments to the injured — 500,000 rubles (€6,000) per person — and on repair works. The government repaired 1,500 buildings and flats and bought around 350 cars. Still, most of the destroyed facilities have still not been fixed due to constant shelling.

“The governor says that the region has no money, so a lot of people still haven’t been compensated for the housing they had lost. Some take out loans to repair houses, cars; they get told that they will be reimbursed at a later date,” Yulia explains.


At the beginning of October, residents of the Shchetinovka village in the Belgorod region were evacuated immediately after shelling, as per the local governor. However, two months later, a 14-year-old resident of the village stepped on a mine on the outskirts of the village. The teenager taken to ICU in a critical condition with foot and face injuries.

Earlier on, a 9-year-old boy had a drone detonate in his hands on the outskirts of Belgorod, two pensioners ran over a mine near the border, and a child was injured by ammunition close to the highway to Kharkiv. By the summer harvest, according to the Belgorod region governor, the government had brought in the Defence Ministry, Emergency Ministry, and the National Guard for demining fields. At least 15 civilians have already been hurt in incidents involving unexploded shells, six of them were killed.

“Russian forces did in fact mine the border, with even their own being killed by the mines,” military expert Yan Matveev comments. “It’s doubtful that border territories were mined thickly, but considering the traditional chaos happening in Russia’s army, the mines will be hard to find, the demining will take a long time.”

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Air defence not an obstacle for shelling

On 22 December, the Belgorod region governor reported to the City Council on the “quality” work of air defence: “The residents’ gratitude is immense. So, I wouldn’t say that we need an additional number [of air defence systems].”

However, even in the capital of the region, the air defence is not always activated on time. On 19 October, a shell hit an “infrastructure facility” in Belgorod; on 1 April, two helicopters belonging to Ukraine’s army attacked an oil depot located within the city limits. According to Russian senator Vladimir Dzhabarov, the helicopters were flying too low to be in the field of vision of air defence.

“Several [air defence] systems are needed to successfully intercept an attack, they not only need to cover a certain hemisphere above them, they also need to cover each other,” Yan Matveev explains. “Judging by the debris found in Belgorod, it’s clear that the Russian army used Pantsir-S1 systems. These systems have a low range — up to 18 km. They’re used to cover objects located in close proximity. This is the last line of defence. Together with them, such long-range systems as Buk, Tor, and S-300/S-400 are supposed to be used so that targets are shot down long before they reach the city.”

Aside from the Belgorod region, over the year of war, such cities and towns as Kursk, Engels, Taganrog, Dzhankoi, and Klintsy have been shelled more than once, with only half of the attacks repelled by air defence. The most effectively defended city is Russia-annexed Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, where the Belbek military airfield, the Russian Navy HQ, and Black Sea Fleet vessels are located. The attacks on the city were repelled in 75% of cases. But most of the attacks in Crimea were on border villages where air defence is activated less often — only in 5.5% of cases.

“Short-distance shelling is carried out using cannon artillery, Grad systems, and mortars. In theory, such attacks could be intercepted, but it’s almost impossible to do it in practice. Furthermore, an air defence system just won’t be transported to defend a border village, there are other locations that are more of a priority,” military expert David Sharp explains. “There are examples of such attacks being prevented: air defence systems in Israeli cities intercept attacks from a weapon similar to Grad, American military bases in Iraq are capable of repelling even mortar shelling. However, organising something like this on the very long Russian border is a very big technical issue.”

Nowhere to run

On 19 May, residents of the Tetkino village, Kursk region, survived a third shelling — 9 multi-storey and 23 private buildings, a kindergarten, and a distillery were damaged.

The next day, the local governor announced the evacuation of the village, but only 29 out of 3,800 residents were moved to temporary accommodation centres. On 22 May, a local social media page announced a petition demanding the village be evacuated: “Lately, we’ve been living in constant fear. The increasing shelling is forcing many to leave, abandoning everything, in order to stay alive. The people who remain in the village are scared to leave their houses and basements. Factories, social infrastructure facilities, and residential buildings were damaged. There are first victims. What do we do next?”

The Kursk region authorities are yet to evacuate even one village. On 6 October, during another shelling of the Tetkino village, a 72-year-old pensioner died of a heart attack; on 2 November, five residents of the Guevo village were injured in shelling, three children among them.

“Ukraine has the technical capability to create unbearable living conditions at least 20 km deep into the territory of Russia. That’s a significant number of people, but their evacuation is still feasible,” David Sharp says. “Russia has the means to relocate dozens and even hundreds of thousands of people. Whether they decide to take this step is another question.”

In the Belgorod region, according to the local governor, 15 border villages have already been evacuated. The people willing to relocate are given a monthly compensation on rent (10,000–15,000 rubles a month, or €120–180) or placed in temporary accommodation centres. By November 2022, 3,487 people had left their homes.

Evacuation of the most shelled towns of the region, Valuyki and Shebekino, is not planned, according to the towns’ heads. However, the people that want to be evacuated can send an inquiry to local administrations and move into a temporary accommodation centre — located, for example, in the city of Stary Oskol, far away from the border.

“Among the people I know, no one has gone, everyone has a job here. Those who had left have already come back; not many have money to move, a job to move for. They would have to abandon everything and start from scratch in a new place. That’s very difficult and scary,” Yulia from Shebekino says. “I continue working as a sales representative. I drive around the district, and shells fly over me. The sales have decreased, people are saving money — they don’t know whether they’ll have to leave, at least they’ll have some money saved. The only thing is that we, of course, try not to end up in crowded places: the cinema, some mass events, the marketplace. The market is the most dangerous place to visit, it’s located closer to the border, and it has already been shelled twice.”

On 20 October, according to the governor, the Murom village, not far from Shebekino, suffered a shelling which destroyed a House of Culture (the local community centre), a kindergarten, and a school. On 15 November, a museum and an art school located in the neighbouring town of Valuyki were damaged.

According to the authorities’ data, over the year of war, 12 schools and 4 kindergartens have been shelled in total — the majority of them located in the Belgorod region. Children who live in the nine border districts as well as the city of Belgorod and the Yakolevsk district were transferred to remote learning until 24 March.

“I wouldn’t have left on my own, but my son is finishing ninth grade. The studying is remote, but I wouldn’t call what they do studying. So, we will probably have to move for him,” Yulia says. “I would like it very much if everything quieted down by summer, or at least by autumn. But I doubt that’s feasible, that we’ll be able to go back to our past lives. And my kid has to go to university in a couple of years, and this year, I think, left a hole in his and other kids’ knowledge. So, we will probably have to move for his school, for my son’s future.”

‘It’s unclear who’s firing at whom’

In August, labels saying “Shelter” started appearing on residential buildings in Bryansk and Klintsy. A month later, the same labels were noticed in the town of Azov and the city of Novoshakhtinsk, Rostov region. By the end of November, information on the location of shelters could be found on the streets of all big border cities: Rostov-on-Don, Belgorod, Kursk, and even Novokuznetsk that is located far away from the front line.

“Information on shelters was posted on the city portal by the government. It’s accessible for the younger people, but pensioners do not understand what they have to search for, how, and where,” Valuyki resident Tatiana Kulikova says. “In most cases, bomb shelters are basements of residential buildings, but residents of these buildings have a lot of questions about the readiness of the basements in case of an emergency.”

In the neighbouring town of Shebekino, according to Yulia, all the buildings were built recently, no earlier than 50 years ago.

“Bomb shelters weren’t even on the designs during construction. And now they’re trying to pretend these basements [could be used as] shelters. Moreover, raid alerts don’t work in our town, either. When shelling starts, it’s unclear who’s firing at whom. An hour later, we receive a text from the emergency services about shelling, when it has already ended.”

In December, the Belgorod region governor said that the alert system was ineffective and had worked only twice in the entirety of the war. “Information from the Emergency Ministry is received by mobile operators 30-40 minutes after the end of shelling, and text messages are received by residents only 1.5 hours later. This, of course, causes extreme irritation in people.”

However, military experts agree that it is basically impossible to coordinate an accurate alert system in border villages and towns — shells make it to the ground in mere seconds.


In January, air defence systems were noticed on Moscow’s roofs by local residents. Two more systems were discovered in the suburbs of Moscow: the first Pantsir system was installed near the Zarechye village, 10 km away from Putin’s residency, the second not far away from the Ostafyevo airfield — it houses military planes and the Gazpromavia airline office.

After the photos had appeared in the media, the Defence Ministry reported to have been conducting drills on repelling attacks “on important military and administrative facilities in the Moscow region”.

Bloomberg reported, citing officials familiar with the situation, that the cause for the installation of air defence systems were the recent attacks on military airfields in Ryazan and Engels. During the month of December, the airfields, located 600 and 800 km away from the border, were attacked thrice. Despite the use of air defence, six servicemen were killed and four injured.

“The Kremlin’s worries are, of course, exaggerated. If Ukrainians wanted to carry out an attack on, let’s say, the Defence Ministry building, they could’ve easily done it from the ground using a small drone,” military expert Yan Matveev comments.

The new aid package to Ukraine, as the US officials told Reuters, will include 150-km range missiles for the first time. On 10 December, project manager for the state defence company Ukroboronprom Oleh Boldyrev said that a new attack drone with a flight range of 1,000 km was almost ready — a range wide enough to strike upon Moscow.

However, in case of a real attack on the Russian capital, Matveev explains, air defence systems on the roofs will not save residents — the missiles need to be shot down long before they make it to the city:

“The missiles of the Pantsir kind can’t completely destroy a big drone in the first place — only shoot it down, after which it will fall down on the city.”

With additional reporting from Dmitry Sazhin and Asya Koshkina.

We thank MediaNet for their help with this article.

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