You could forgive residents of Kupyansk for being confused when they were rounded up and sent to prison by local police brandishing documents from Belgorod, a Russian border region nearly 93 miles away.
They knew many in the force that patrolled the city’s streets were collaborating with Moscow’s occupying army.
But they had not heard any official announcement that they were now part of Russia, as the policemen’s arrest forms claimed.
To add to the confusion, the officers looked exactly the same.
“Policemen who agreed to collaborate weren't even given Russian uniforms – they wore Ukrainian ones,” said Oleksandr, the owner of a small business in the city. “Yet they had the coat of arms of the [Russian] Belgorod region on their documents.”
It was just one of many signs of how chaotic, repressive and corrupt the city’s new Russian administration was, from hastily imposed new business rules to snatching people off the street for looking at someone the wrong way.
As Russia prepares to formally annex four Ukrainian territories in the south and east on Friday, Kupyansk shows how little regard Moscow has for the territory it has spilled so much blood to conquer.
And if the city’s experiences are anything to go by, residents in Russian-controlled areas of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk are in a similar upside-down world of bungled bureaucracy and draconian punishments.
Captured in February, Russia fought hard to take control of Kupyansk because of its strategic location in the Kharkiv region with railway lines running across the entire eastern front that allowed Russia to pump in men and ammunition to support its advance in the Donbas.
When it finally fell, Moscow made the city the new administrative capital for the territory it had taken in the region, even encouraging Ukrainians to go there to apply for passports – Russian of course.
But for residents there, it quickly became obvious that officials were more focused on projecting the image of it being part of Russia than providing even the most basic services of a functioning government.
Standing among the ruins of the city centre, business owner Oleksandr said Russian forces detained people like him as a way to collect ransoms from their family: “Many entrepreneurs were partially deprived of their business or cars and forced to cooperate.”
Businesses also had to face Kafka-esque requirements just to stay open that suddenly made them de facto Russian.
“They introduced roubles, and forced entrepreneurs to register their business in the Belgorod region,” he said. “They accepted documents for registration here, but the registration of the business was Belgorod.”
And although fighting had stopped, food remained a huge problem. Russia provided some humanitarian aid, but only if you were fit enough to get it.
“You had to stay in line for three days,” said Maxim, a resident of Kupyansk who decided to stay behind to support his elderly mother.
He said some collapsed from hunger while waiting: “It’s thousands of people. People would pass out standing in that line.”
Residents had to live on a knife edge around their new overlords.
If you disobeyed curfew, or could not present documentation on demand, you would be sent to jail. Russian forces would detain people for being drunk in the day or if they simply didn’t like the way a person looked at them, said Maxim.
“It was very strict prohibitions during the Russian occupation: no way in, no way out, curfew. You can’t go out from your own yard. If you do that, they take you to prison for two weeks.
“So we just tried not to go out,” he added. “That’s how we lived.”
If you were caught, the punishment was hard labour.
“In prison, you worked for Russia, repairing stuff, chopping wood,” he said.
Getting out of jail meant paying bribes and it was essentially an extortion racket, said Oleksandr.
“To get out of prison quickly you had to pay a lot of money, poor people sat there much longer,” he explained.
Finally, on September 10, Ukrainian forces retook the city as part of a lightning offensive that eventually liberated more than 3,000 square miles of territory across the country’s northeast.
When The Telegraph visited 10 days later, fierce fighting was still under way just across the nearby Oskil river and the constant thud of shells and buzz of drones could be heard.
“I saw a lot of things: how shells flew over the apartments, how they exploded. I saw how people ran away in a panic, how the earth shook, how the walls in the basement crumbled. It was scary,” said Anatoli, 23, who was riding his bike through the destroyed marketplace.
He slowed as he saw an elderly couple sifting through the rubble of a ruined store hoping for signs of food, but they moved on again when they saw it was mostly clothes.
But he is grateful at least that the Russians are gone. “It was hard to survive,” he said.
"I felt great when the Russians retreated, everyone was happy – we even wanted to launch fireworks.”