To enter Russia from occupied Ukraine, all Tatyana has to do is arrive at the edge of the war-torn Donetsk region, show the guard her Russian passport, say “thank you” and cross over. It’s just what you have to do.
Moscow has controlled several key border points since 2014, but the border has become more porous since the Kremlin annexed four Ukrainian territories last year and encouraged residents to take up new citizenship. It has become.
“Now that we are Russian, we are more comfortable,” a 37-year-old man living in a Russian-occupied town near the front line told AFP.
Previously, Tatyana had to go through more difficult procedures to enter Russia. It had to pass through Russian customs via a separatist check sponsored by Moscow.
“There were two borders to cross and long lines of cars,” she said near a remote motel.
She was on her way to Taganrog, a town in southern Russia that was once home to author Anton Chekhov, to take care of some errands, including purchasing insurance.
The smooth crossing is one of the most visible signs of change since the Kremlin annexed the Donetsk industrial zone along with three other regions of Ukraine in a lavish ceremony last year.
These demonstrate how quickly the Russian authorities seek to absorb the occupied territories, even though the international community, including Russia’s allies, does not recognize Russia’s authority in the occupied territories.
Moscow hosted municipal elections in annexed Ukrainian territory over the weekend, with the pro-Kremlin party United Russia claiming easy victories in each region.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said in May that authorities had distributed nearly 2 million Russian passports to Ukrainians in the occupied territories.
However, Ukrainian forces have not yet completely taken control of any of the four regions they annexed last year, and they are increasing their influence in two of them: Zaporizhia in the south and Donetsk in the east.
Nevertheless, thousands of people travel to Russia by bus or car from occupied cities such as Donetsk, Lugansk and Mariupol. Mariupol is a port city captured by Moscow after months of brutal siege.
But away from the front lines, signs of conflict are everywhere.
AFP reporters spotted Russian military vehicles painted with large Z and V tactical symbols on the road between Taganrog and Avilo Uspenka intersections.
Two Russian attack helicopters then flew overhead.
“The closer I get to (Russia), the safer I feel,” Tatyana said, describing life in the “frontline” town of Gorrybka in Ukraine as dangerous and stressful.
The conflict has spilled over into Russia, where cross-border drone attacks and artillery fire have become commonplace, although Russian authorities are working to contain the fighting on one side of the border.
A taxi driver, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that his passengers, a mother and her two sons, were recently stopped by Russian customs officials as they were leaving Ukraine’s Lugansk region.
The man was accused of deserting the unit and his mother was accused of trying to help him return home.
While entry into Russia has become easier for civilians like Tatyana, it remains difficult for truck drivers, who are still subject to close scrutiny by Russian customs officials.
“The rules for crossing with cars are very different from the rules for crossing with cargo,” Vlad, a 26-year-old truck driver, told AFP, who spends long hours in his truck every time he passes.
Nearby, Natalia, a retired postal worker, was waiting to connect on the daily train from Russia back to the occupied Donetsk region.
“We obviously want more transportation,” the 69-year-old told AFP after visiting relatives in Taganrog.
“We haven’t quite reached Russia yet, but we’re hopeful,” she said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)