Just weeks ago, Irina was working in the Russian occupation administration in Kupiansk, a large town in northern Ukraine that had been captured days after Vladimir Putin launched his war against the country.
But then, as Russian troops fled the city and the Ukrainian army retook occupied territories in the country’s north, she and her family fled what they expected would be swift punishment for collaborating with the Russian invasion force.
Evidence emerging from the newly retaken territories indicates that Russian troops regularly used violence to put down any local dissent and maintain control. At the same time, some have said they welcomed and helped the Russians. Others listened to the insistence by Moscow-installed officials that they were there to stay for ever and decided to cooperate or simply try to live quietly under Russian rule.
For Moscow’s local allies, the sudden retreat of the Russian forces, who ceded some villages and towns with little resistance, was a turnaround bordering on betrayal.
“Everyone had told us we’re here now, we’re here, you have nothing to be afraid of,” said Irina, recalling promises from officials sent by Moscow. She had taken a job in the accounting department of the new local administration installed by Russia, she said. “Five days ago they were telling us they would never leave. And three days later we were under shelling … And we don’t understand anything [about the offensive].
“We don’t understand what the point of this is then,” she said of the Russian military operation.
For months, Russia told people in Ukraine’s occupied regions that it was there to stay. The rouble was introduced, retired people were told they would get Russian pensions, and pro-Russian residents were hired into the ranks of government workers.
“The fact is obvious that Russia is never leaving,” said Andrei Turchak, a leader of Russia’s governing United Russia party, during a visit to Kupiansk in July. “Russia will never leave here. And all the necessary aid will be provided.”
That vow, along with the threat of violence, was crucial to project Moscow’s power into the towns and villages of Ukraine by ensuring willing locals that they would never have to face punishment as traitors or collaborators.
Now Russia’s retreat has dealt a devastating blow to the image of the Russian armed forces and the Kremlin among some of their most willing supporters in Ukraine.
Ukraine has vowed to catch locals who collaborated with the Russian army or cooperated with Russian-installed governments. Cases can carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years. President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Wednesday that Ukrainian forces were seeking to root out “remnants of occupiers and sabotage groups” in the reclaimed towns and villages of the Kharkiv region.
In Belgorod, a Russian region that borders Kharkiv, the governor’s office has said nearly 1,400 people are housed at a temporary camp after crossing the border from Ukraine. Many are families with children who have fled fighting. Hundreds more people are likely staying in rented apartments or with relatives.
At a small aid distribution centre in the city, a half-dozen Ukrainians who had recently fled to Russia said they were dumbfounded by Moscow’s inability to hold on to the Kharkiv region and withstand the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that has retaken 8,000 sq km (3,100 sq miles) of territory in just several weeks.
“People there believed the Russian troops, they said we won’t leave you, that we lost so many people and we won’t leave you,” said Alexander, 44, who fled from a nearby village with his wife and son. “Then they suddenly retreated. They took several months to gather all this territory and then they abandoned it in two days. They don’t understand what happened.”
Alexander, a trained pipe welder, said that he had not worked for Russia and hadn’t been employed since the war began. He had wanted to leave his village, which quickly fell to Russia in the early days of the war, because he “didn’t have either work or a school, and I need to dress my child and send him to school”.
They had planned to join a brother in Poland, but then Alexander was wounded by a shell, and they fled to stay with a relative in Russia instead.
They left, he said, not because they opposed a return to Ukrainian rule, but because of the danger from the war. “It was driving us to hysteria,” he said. “We took it for as long as we could.”
Like others, he asked not to be identified by his last name. He feared he could be seen as a traitor for having fled to Russia. He said he still hoped to return home to visit his parents in Ukraine.
Moscow’s efforts to integrate the territories by publicly offering handouts while enforcing a culture of fear in occupied Ukraine was seen as a prelude to a formal annexation that could be held in some regions as soon as this autumn.
But the lack of security signalled by Russia’s sudden retreat has also shaken the trust that some had and makes that more difficult in the territories that Moscow continues to hold.
“We should have left earlier,” said Sergei, Irina’s boyfriend, who worked on the local railway. It was now difficult to find any place to stay in Belgorod, he said, where thousands of people have moved since the beginning of the war.
Irina and Sergei both said they still supported Russia in the war but had less faith that it could protect supporters in Ukraine.
“Now I’m worried for people in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia,” said Irina, referring to the regions in southern Ukraine also occupied by Russia. “They’re also being told ‘We’re not going to leave.’ But if you look at what happened near Kharkiv, then no one can say what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
By many accounts, Russian troops themselves and some of the Kremlin’s top boosters have come out saying that Russia is in danger of losing its supporters in occupied Ukraine.
“People here are waiting for us to get started,” said Alexander Sladkov, a Russian war correspondent, in a televised report. “For us to hit them so hard that they end up on their backsides. That’s to say a knockout. It’s very difficult to win on points. We’re losing a huge number of people, we have wounded.”
Catching himself, he added: “And we have great successes.”
Russia has not had much success lately. And its troubles may grow further as towns that have been held by Russia since the first weeks of the war begin to emerge from isolation and tell stories of life under occupation.
It also set off an exodus of people for the border. Earlier this week, Yulia Nemchinova, a local activist who delivers aid to Ukrainian refugees in Russia, filmed a video of some of the hundreds of cars that had fled from Kharkiv region at the Russian border.
A Ukrainian official described one such convoy from the Luhansk region as collaborators “packing their loot, packing their families, and leaving”. Nemchinova, who has pro-Russian views, confirmed that many inside feared being labelled as collaborators, although she described them as locals who she said were “just trying to live”.
“People were told that Russia is here for ever,” she said. “They were in shock. People were just black. They were literally the colour black. I asked people where are they going, they said: to Russia. Just nowhere. Just to cross the border.”
At the aid centre, most said they would only return to Ukraine if Russia retook the territory. Others said they would never return at all, even if Russia returns.
“We’ll never go back,” said Sergei, Irina’s boyfriend, who was carrying a small bag with shoes and sweaters from the aid centre. “There’s nothing for us to go back to.”