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The lightning advance of Ukrainian troops in the east of the country is monitored 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 in May, was one of the targets most hit by the bombings.
Eight days after the start of the Ukrainian army’s dramatic offensive in eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on Thursday, September 15, the liberation of “almost the entire Kharkiv region”. The army claims it has recaptured more than 400 localities since the start of September, pushing Russian forces to the border.
In Kharkiv, the region’s capital, the advance of Ukrainian forces has raised a mixture of hope and fear. Because the country’s second city, about 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 week targeting infrastructure in several Ukrainian cities. One of them hit a power station in Kharkiv, leaving the city without electricity for several hours.
“We have seen everything here. The war, when the Russians attacked the city, the indiscriminate bombing and now we are in the third phase: the targeted strikes against our infrastructure. This is no longer a war, this is terrorism pure and simple “, Ivanna, 38 years old, was taken. The young woman, who lived in the center of Kharkiv for fifteen years, was an organizer of cultural events before the war. A life that has been suspended since the start of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”.
Russian forces were held back
Launched on February 24, the Russian offensive took Ukrainian forces by surprise. Neither military experts nor the government of Ukraine seriously considered the possibility of an offensive beyond the Donbass region.
Within 24 hours, Russian troops reached the northern suburbs of Kharkiv. But the fight was interrupted. Despite their numerical superiority, the Russian forces were unable to enter the city. In mid-May, the Russians, still unsuccessful in encircling the city, finally retreated.
For Oleksiy Melnyk, Ukrainian military expert and researcher at the Razoumkov Center in Ukraine, this failure indicates a major strategic mistake on Russia’s part.
“It seems obvious that Russia has largely underestimated the level of Ukrainian resistance. This is all the more the case of Kharkiv, which is a Russian-speaking city, near the border and whose mayor is considered a opponent of President Zelensky. For Russian power, there is no difference between the president and the state. They do 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 outside the city, the Russian army unleashed a flood of fire against Kharkiv. According to Andrii Kravchenko, the region’s deputy prosecutor, cited 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 was hit the hardest by the Russians,” said Donatella Rivera, an Amnesty International investigator, whose report criticized the “relentless” and “indiscriminate” attacks. in the town.
As the months passed, Ivana learned to live with the sound of the incessant explosions. “These sounds have become familiar: here everything can be distinguished by the sound of incoming or outgoing missiles, the type of weapons used and their distance checked. 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 do not arrive for a minute, which causes great problems for the air defense system. We are hostages of geography”, complained the young the girl.
For Oleksiy Melnyk, there is no doubt that these intensive bombings are “punitive strikes” that show the anger of the Russian authorities after the failure to take the city. “Kharkiv is a megalopolis 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 intimidate the population and not to counter a potential threat”, he concluded.
As the city evacuated almost half of its 1.4 million inhabitants, according to local authority estimates, Ivana decided to stay “to support the war effort”. He now lives on occasional odd jobs and volunteers at an NGO that collects military and medical equipment for field forces and civilian hospitals.
Since the power grid strike, electricity has returned and a semblance of normal life has returned. “Last night there was only one strike. I almost forgot that we are at war” said the young woman ironically, not hiding her sadness.
“The counter-offensive gives me hope. In Kharkiv, there is great unity, volunteers play a very important role, especially in supporting the return of civilians to liberated localities. But I am very worried ok for now. 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 strikes in Russia 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 torments us”.