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Russia seeks to erase Ukraine’s occupied border

To cross into Russia from occupied Ukraine, Tatiana only needs to reach the border of the war-damaged Donetsk region, display her Russian passport to the guards, express gratitude, and proceed.

Moscow has held control of several critical border points since 2014, but the border has become more permeable since Russia annexed four Ukrainian regions last year, encouraging residents to acquire Russian citizenship.

“It’s become more convenient because we’ve become Russians,” said the 37-year-old from a town near the front line under Russian control.

Tatiana used to face a more complicated procedure to enter Russia, including checks by Moscow-sponsored separatists and Russian customs. “We had to cross two borders, resulting in long, long traffic queues,” she explained near a motel at the border.

She was en route to Taganrog, a southern Russian town formerly home to writer Anton Chekhov, for errands, including obtaining insurance.

The smoother border crossings exemplify one of the most noticeable changes since Russia’s lavish annexation of the industrial Donetsk region and three other Ukrainian regions last year.

These crossings highlight how quickly Russian authorities are assimilating occupied territories, despite the fact that the international community, including Russia’s allies, does not recognize Moscow’s authority there.

Recently, Moscow held local government elections in the annexed Ukrainian territories and claimed that the pro-Kremlin party United Russia had won by a significant margin in each region.

In May, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin stated that officials had issued nearly two million Russian passports to Ukrainians in the occupied regions.

However, Russian forces do not yet have full control over any of the four regions annexed last year, and Ukrainian forces are making progress in two of them: Zaporizhzhia in the south and Donetsk in the east.

Nevertheless, thousands of people continue to travel to Russia by bus or car from occupied cities like Donetsk, Lugansk, and Mariupol, despite the latter being captured by Moscow after a brutal months-long siege.

Further from the front lines, signs of the conflict are evident everywhere. Journalists from AFP traveling between Taganrog and the Avilo-Uspenka crossing point observed Russian military vehicles marked with large Z and V tactical symbols, along with two Russian attack helicopters flying overhead.

“The closer you get (to Russia), the safer you feel,” Tatiana said, describing life in her “frontline” Ukrainian town of Gorlivka as both dangerous and stressful.

While the conflict has spilled over into Russia, with cross-border drone attacks and regular shelling, Russian authorities are working to contain the fighting on their side of the border.

A taxi driver, speaking anonymously, told AFP that two of his passengers—a mother and her son—had recently been detained by Russian customs officers as they left the Ukrainian region of Lugansk. The man was accused of deserting from his military unit, and his mother was accused of aiding his return home.

Although entering Russia has become easier for civilians like Tatiana, challenges persist for truck drivers, who are still subject to rigorous checks by Russian customs officers.

“The rules for crossing for cars are very different from those for goods,” said Vlad, a 26-year-old truck driver who spends long hours in his lorry each time he passes through.

Close by, retired postal worker Natalia was awaiting the one daily train from Russia back to the occupied Donetsk region. “We would obviously like more forms of transport,” the 69-year-old remarked after visiting relatives in Taganrog.

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