An elderly woman keeping night watch at a hotel in the city of Taganrog sounds incredulous as guests trickling down to the lobby at dawn tell her Russia had invaded Ukraine.
“Maybe it’s a lie?” says the employee of Ida, a small hotel in the historic centre of the southern port city near the border with Ukraine.
Then the woman in her 60s turns on the TV and her eyes widen.
On the screen, she sees a surprise address from President Vladimir Putin, who announces the start of an air and ground assault on Ukraine in the small hours of Thursday.
The road to the Ukrainian border — and towards the port city of Mariupol — hugs the coastline. Early Thursday, there is little traffic, but the road, recently battered by rain, is shrouded in a thick fog.
At the Russian-Ukrainian border post, a strange calm reigns. Several policemen go about their business, and tents of the Russian emergencies ministry have been erected.
Not a soldier is in sight, not a detonation is heard. Three police vehicles parked at the checkpoint allow sporadic civilian cars to cross the border despite the offensive.
Dozens of kilometres away is the village of Pokrovskoye. One day earlier, it had been packed with Russian soldiers.
Now it is deserted, the soldiers likely having departed north towards the Ukrainian region of Donetsk. The fresh tank tracks could be seen in the mud.
‘War has started’
Anastasia Yashonkova comes out of a store where she bought toys and lemonade for her four-year-old son. Holding her child by the hand, Yashonkova says all she wants is peace.
“This is really scary,” said the 30-year-old. “I feel sorry for the people who live there, I feel sorry for all the soldiers. I feel sorry for everyone.”
Ambulances could be seen racing down the roads, without sirens.
In the border village of Avilo-Uspenka, a tent camp has been set up by the emergencies ministry.
Volunteers from a pro-Putin movement, the Popular Front, welcome people fleeing the separatist territory of Donetsk, whose independence Putin recognised this week.
“300 to 400 people have arrived since this morning,” said Kirill, one of the volunteers.
“We have prepared wheelchairs for the elderly, we are offering medical aid,” said the student, who is in his 20s.
Back in Pokrovskoye, where wet dogs run through mud puddles, Yulia, a 20-year-old student, says she cannot believe the news.
“I woke up and my father told me that the war had started. I don’t feel good about this,” said the young woman, declining to give her last name.
She said she was worried about civilians both in Russia and Ukraine.
“I want everyone to be alive and well,” she said.
Insurance agent Anton Shakhovalov brushed aside concerns.
Even though some of his relatives lived in Ukraine, he defended Putin.
“I think this will all be over very quickly,” said the 40-year-old.
“The president has made the right decision. As they rightly say, these are defensive and not offensive actions.”