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The lightning advance of Ukrainian troops in the east of the country is being watched from the regional capital Kharkiv. Located about thirty kilometers from the Russian border, the second largest city in Ukraine, which managed to repel Moscow’s offensive last May, is one of the targets hardest hit by the bombardments.
Eight days after the start of the spectacular advance of the Ukrainian army in eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on Thursday 15 September the release of “virtually all of the Kharkov regionThe army claims to have recaptured more than 400 localities since early September, pushing Russian forces back towards the border.
In Kharkiv, the regional capital, the progress of Ukrainian forces is raising a mixture of hope and apprehension. Because the second city of the country, some 30 km from the Russian border, remains one of the priority targets of the bombing campaign orchestrated by Moscow.
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 station in Kharkiv, leaving the city without electricity for several hours.
“We have seen it all here. The war, when the Russians attacked the city, the indiscriminate bombings and now we are in the third phase: the targeted strikes against our infrastructure. This is no longer war, it It’s terrorism pure and simple”, gets carried away Ivanna, 38 years old. The young woman, who has lived in the center of Kharkiv for fifteen years, was an organizer of cultural events before the war. A life suspended since the start of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”.
Russian forces held in check
Launched on February 24, the Russian offensive took the Ukrainian forces by surprise. Neither military experts nor the Ukrainian government then seriously considered the possibility of an offensive beyond the Donbass region.
Within 24 hours, Russian troops reached the northern suburbs of Kharkiv. But the fighting is bogged down. Despite their numerical superiority, the Russian forces were unable to penetrate the city. In mid-May, the Russians, who had still not succeeded in encircling the city, finally backed down.
For Oleksiy Melnyk, Ukrainian military expert and researcher at the Razoumkov Center in Ukraine, this failure is indicative of a major strategic error on the Russian side.
“It seems obvious that Russia has largely underestimated the degree of Ukrainian resistance. This is all the more the case in Kharkiv, which is a Russian-speaking city, close to the border and whose mayor was perceived as an opponent of the President Zelensky. For Russian power, there is no distinction between the president and the state. They did not understand that it is not because Ukrainians speak Russian, watch Russian television and criticize their President, that they will automatically regard the invader as their savior”.
Blocked on the outskirts of the city, the Russian army unleashes a deluge of fire against Kharkiv. According to Andrii Kravchenko, the region’s deputy prosecutor, quoted in a Human Rights Watch report, at least 1,019 civilians have been killed and 1,947 injured in hundreds of attacks since late February.
“Overall, Kharkiv is probably the city that has been hit hardest by the Russians,” said Donatella Rivera, an investigator at Amnesty International, whose report denounces “incessant” and “indiscriminate” attacks on the city.
As the months went by, Ivana learned to live with the sound of the incessant explosions. “These sounds have become familiar: here everyone can differentiate the sound of incoming or outgoing missiles, the type of weapons used and assess their distance. This is a new capability that we have developed. In Kharkiv, our particularity is that we are so close to Russia that the rockets sometimes take less than a minute to arrive, which poses big problems for the air defense system. We are hostages of geography”, laments the young woman.
For Oleksiy Melnyk, there is no doubt that these intensive bombings are “punitive strikes” which reflect the anger of the Russian authorities following the failure to take the city. “Kharkiv is a megalopolis which is home to several strategic military installations, including a major tank factory. But these installations are not priority targets for Russia, whose strikes are mainly aimed at civilian areas and administrative buildings. It is clear that this bombing campaign aims to terrorize the population and not to counter a potential threat”, he concludes.
While the city has emptied nearly half of its 1.4 million inhabitants, according to estimates by local authorities, Ivana has decided to stay “to support the war effort”. She now lives off occasional odd jobs and volunteers with an NGO that collects military and medical equipment for field forces and civilian hospitals.
Since the strike on the power grid, the 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” ironically the young woman, who does not hide her anguish.
“The counter-offensive gives me hope. In Kharkiv, there is great solidarity, the volunteers play a very important role, in particular to support the return of civilians to the liberated localities. But I am very worried at the moment. winter is approaching. So far, I have managed to organize myself to stay in my apartment despite the lack of money. But what will happen if the Russian strikes deprive us of water or food? electricity? I’m not sure I can stay. In this war, that’s the hardest thing to live with: this constant uncertainty that gnaws at us”.