For many Russians, their country’s war against neighboring Ukraine is no longer a distant conflict that has no impact on their lives. Drones loaded with explosives have darkened the skies of not only border regions, but Moscow, too, while cross-border incursions by armed groups are now a regular occurrence in the Belgorod region. All the while, Vladimir Putin continues to pretend that nothing major is happening. The president intends to fight this war to the bitter end, but in order to avoid ever appearing to have lost, he cannot clearly articulate its ultimate goals.

Amid this deafening silence, anyone who recognizes the new reality looks preferable. As the figures responsible for dealing with the aftermath of attacks and for trying to reassure the residents of their regions, Russia’s regional governors have found themselves in the spotlight, and may well be able to boost their popularity through effective crisis management. 

The increased shelling of the Belgorod region — the first Russian region to find itself dragged into Putin’s war — and incursions by armed groups are likely the greatest test Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov has faced in his career, but they have also provided him with plenty of opportunities to excel. Parts of the region, including the town of Shebekino with a population of 40,000, regularly come under fire, and residents of at-risk areas are being evacuated en masse away from the front. Gladkov was even publicly negotiating a prisoner exchange at one point, though he then quickly fell silent, likely upon the Kremlin’s orders.

The governor has also said openly that the region has insufficient funds to restore infrastructure after the shelling. Back in the 1990s, it was not unheard of for powerful governors to talk publicly about budgetary problems, but in Putin’s Russia, it’s highly unusual. 

It might seem that the federal leadership and Putin himself should be taking control of the tense situation in the region. But for now, any federal intervention has been limited to phone calls between the president and local authorities. Residents of the region have gotten no reassurances from Putin.

Nor did the president have any words of support for Muscovites in the aftermath of the Moscow drone attack last month. Putin did eventually address the incident, but most of his tirade was devoted to the history of Ukraine and Russia. Instead, the reassurance came from Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who said mobile teams of doctors were being set up in the city, promised to provide all necessary assistance, and tried to convince people that the city authorities would not abandon those impacted by the attacks.