The regional capital of Kharkiv’s residents are closely monitoring the lightning advance of Ukrainian troops in the eastern part of the country. Located about 30km from the Russian border, Ukraine’s second largest city, which managed to repel Moscow’s offensive in May, has been one of the hardest hit by bombing.
Eight days after the Ukrainian army launched its spectacular advance in eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on 15 September that “almost the entire Kharkiv region” had been liberated. The army claims to have recaptured more than 400 localities since the beginning of September and pushed Russian forces back towards the border.
Western defense officials and analysts said on Saturday that they believed the Russian forces were setting up a new defensive line between the Oskil River and Svatoe, some 150 kilometres southeast of the regional capital Kharkiv, as a counter-measure. Moscow “likely sees maintaining control of this zone as important because it is transited by one of the few main resupply routes Russia still controls from the Belgorod region of Russia”, the British defense ministry told AP.
In Kharkiv, the advance of Ukrainian forces is being met with both hope and apprehension. The country’s second largest city, some 30km from the Russian border, remains one of the main targets of Moscow’s bombing campaign.
Forced to retreat in the face of advancing Ukrainian forces, the Russian army launched a series of punitive strikes last weekend targeting the infrastructure of several Ukrainian cities. One of them hit a power plant in Kharkiv, leaving the city without electricity for several hours.
“We have experienced everything here. The war, when the Russians attacked the city, the indiscriminate bombing, and now we are in the third phase: targeted strikes on our infrastructure. This is no longer war, it’s pure and simple terrorism,” says 38-year-old Ivana. This young woman, who has been living in the centre of Kharkiv for 15 years, organised cultural events before the war. Her life has been put on hold ever since Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation”.
Russian forces kept in check
Initiated on 24 February, the Russian offensive caught the Ukrainian forces off guard. Neither military experts nor the Ukrainian government had seriously considered the possibility that an offensive might extend beyond the Donbas region.
Within 24 hours, Russian troops reached the northern suburbs of Kharkiv. But the fighting stalled. Despite their greater numbers, the Russian forces did not manage to enter the city. In mid-May, the Russians, who had still not managed to surround Kharkiv, finally retreated.
Oleksiy Melnyk, a Ukrainian military expert and researcher at the Razumkov Centre in Ukraine, says this failure demonstrates that the Russians committed a major strategic error.
“It seems obvious that Russia has largely underestimated the degree of Ukrainian resistance. This is especially true in Kharkiv, which is a Russian-speaking city, close to the border and whose mayor was perceived as one of President Zelensky’s opponents. The Russian authorities see no distinction between the president and the state. They have not understood that just because Ukrainians speak Russian, watch Russian television and criticise their president, they will not automatically consider the invader as their saviour.”
Blocked on the city’s outskirts, the Russian army unleashed a deluge of fire on Kharkiv. According to Andrii Kravchenko, the region’s deputy prosecutor, as quoted in a Human Rights Watch report, at least 1,019 civilians have been killed and 1,947 wounded in hundreds of attacks since late February.
“Kharkiv is probably the city that has been hit hardest by the Russians,” says Donatella Rivera, an Amnesty International researcher, whose report denounces the “incessant” and “indiscriminate” attacks on the city.
As the months go by, Ivana has learned to live with the sound of the constant blasts. “These sounds have become familiar here, everyone can hear the difference between incoming and outgoing missiles, the types of weapons used and how far away they are. We have developed this new skill. In Kharkiv, because we are so close to Russia, the rockets sometimes take less than a minute to arrive, which is a big problem for the air defence system. We are hostages to geography,” says the young woman.
There is no doubt in Melnyk’s mind that these intensive bombardments are “punitive strikes” that reflect the Russian government’s anger at its failure to take the city. “Kharkiv is a megalopolis that is home to several strategic military installations, including a major tank factory. But these facilities are not priority targets for Russia, whose strikes are mostly aimed at civilian areas and administrative buildings. It is clear that the purpose of this bombing campaign is to terrorise the population rather than counter a potential threat,” he concluded.
While nearly half of the city’s 1.4 million inhabitants have left, according to local authorities’ estimates, Ivana has decided to stay “to support the war effort”. She now works odd jobs and volunteers with an NGO that collects military and medical supplies for the forces on the ground and civilian hospitals.
Since the strike on the electricity grid, power has returned and a semblance of normal life has resumed. “Last night there was only one strike. I almost forgot that we were at war,” says the young woman, who does not hide her anxiety.
“The counter-offensive gives me hope. In Kharkiv, there is great solidarity, volunteers are playing a very important role, especially in helping civilians return to the liberated areas. But I am very worried, as winter is fast approaching. So far, I have managed to stay in my flat despite a lack of funds. But what will happen if the Russian strikes leave us without water or electricity? I’m not sure I can stay. In this war, the hardest thing to live with is the constant uncertainty that eats away at us.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.