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EXCLUSIVE in-depth War in Ukraine Kharkiv

Front Line Inches Closer to Ukraine's 2nd Largest City

Kyiv Post visited the city that's inching toward becoming a front line in Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine.

Apr. 16

Today’s Kharkiv is not dissimilar to London during the Second World War. Every day, the front line of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine seems to inch closer to Ukraine’s second-largest city. Now, there are over a dozen daily air alarms. Explosions are also near-daily in a city where more than 20,000 buildings have been destroyed since the start of Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion.

Kyiv Post visited the city and talked to locals about how they try to live normal lives under regular Russian attack.

Since December – around the time that news reports started surfacing thatAmerican military support was at an impasse due to political wrangling in the US Congress – Kharkiv has been hit by more missiles than at any other point in the war. 

Kyiv Post accidentally caught an explosion on camera – about a kilometer away.

Since March 27, when Moscow first used a glide bomb on Kharkiv – the daily strikes have been multiplying.

Kharkiv, which, before the full-scale invasion had approximately 1.4 million people, had a solid infrastructure and a strong IT sector. It’s considered Ukraine’s second capital – and not only because for many years it was the capital, but also because it was a major industrial hub, with defense, mechanical engineering, and aerospace industries concentrated here.

But a lot has changed. Many of the businesses have left. Blackouts are frequent.

However, it doesn’t keep Kharkivers from trying.

The northern districts of Kharkiv – particularly Saltivka and Oleksiyivka – were subjected to regular Russian artillery attacks early on in the 2022 full-scale invasion.

It was in Saltivka in the spring of 2022 that Volodymyr’s apartment building got shelled.

“It was about 3:00 in the morning. It was chaotic, all over the area. One shell fell over in the next yard, one flew behind my building, one flew on my neighbors’ roof and destroyed two apartments – it got stuck in my friend’s bedroom,” he said.

Fortunately, often, the Russian shells fail to explode, Volodymyr added. 

Volodymyr’s neighbor Valentina lives on the first floor of her building. About half of her apartment, now restored, had been destroyed.

 “Two shells broke through the fifth floor, went through the fourth floor, and got stuck...In the space above me, two apartments were fully destroyed. The fifth floor was completely destroyed– only the side walls were there, and there was nothing inside…On the fourth floor, people were at home – but the shells flew into the next room, got stuck in the refrigerator and the floor,” she said.

Mykola, a builder from Saltivka, shows Kyiv Post a recently rebuilt landing between the fourth and fifth floor of a five-story apartment building.

“This space was bombed. A new one was built. Now the stairs also need to be redone,” he said.

The Kremlin claims it does not target civilians – but the recent attacks which have almost exclusively hit civilian targets tell a different story. Ukrainian officials say 100 civilians have been killed in Russian attacks since the beginning of this year.

 “They deliberately hit residential buildings with Shaheds,” said Andrii Dronov, the deputy head of the Ninth Fire and Rescue Unit. “We went to help and found that they were already dead. We thought – maybe they [the Russians] had made a mistake in hitting the State Emergency Service. But they deliberately hit fire departments in the region. In Dvorichna. In Liptsy. In Cossack Lopan. This is contrary to all the norms of warfare. They’re inhuman.” 

The Kremlin has also been employing “double-tap” strikes, that is repeated strikes on the same position to first hit the civilian target, and then kill the rescuers.

In one of these attacks, three of Dronov’s colleagues were killed.

Russian strikes have been hitting the center, destroying historical buildings, energy facilities, industrial zones, shopping centers, and more.

This, the well-known Planet Mall Center was destroyed in a missile attack on April 6. Six Kharkivers were killed.

Kharkiv’s misfortune is that it sits only about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Russian border.

 “If there is an air alert, we have only 30-40 seconds, and the missile is already reaching Kharkiv. Recently, there was a fire when the Russians hit an oil depot. Even the snow was burning, the asphalt was burning. Residential buildings burned. Fuel on fire flooded them like lava. Then the whole family, three children and a couple were burned alive in their home,” Dronov said.

Russian attacks on power facilities in Kharkiv have done significant damage.

Blackouts have become more frequent in the city, with consumers sometimes going without electricity for a day or more, said Yuri Sapronov, former deputy chairman of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration.

“The primary issue is energy, undoubtedly,” Sapronov said. “Kharkiv consumes 700 megawatts per day. Two weeks ago, with 22 missiles, the aggressors targeted the five main stations that supply 90 percent of Kharkiv’s power. They followed up with another 16 missiles, effectively destroying them, and now, so to speak, they have leveled them with Shaheds [Iranian-made kamikaze drones]. Consequently, our main stations are destroyed, and generation is at 40 percent of normal capacity. The outages last for 7-8 hours officially, but in reality, they stretch to 10-12 hours – sometimes even a day. However, we understand the situation and will persevere through it.” 

Due to incessant shelling, many homes in Kharkiv bear scars. The site of windows patched up with plywood and boards is a common sight.

The city, home to over a million people, faces a shortage of glass.

However, locals remain resilient, endeavoring to maintain a semblance of normalcy.

Oleksii's family, who temporarily moved to Poltava, recently returned to Kharkiv.

 “It's slightly better now, and we're prepared for blackouts. The only inconvenience in our household is cooking without electricity. But we have gas stoves using cylinders, batteries, power banks, and when mobile communication falters and boredom sets in, we gather in the yard, grill shish kabobs – my wife and child really enjoy it,” Oleksii said.

Like most residents, he believes in facing fate head-on and continuing with daily life.

“It's like playing Russian roulette now. People have come to accept it. You find ways to carry on. Kharkiv residents are simply accustomed to it. The human psyche adapts to adversity,” he said. “Yes, there are explosions. About two weeks ago, it happened nearby, resulting in 12 casualties.”

The Russians aim to compel capitulation by instigating a humanitarian crisis in Kharkiv, if not all of Ukraine, Sapronov said.

 “Now they're trying to intimidate us. Panic grips the populace. It's challenging. People perish daily. Drones have started arriving – a phenomenon unprecedented before. This is terrifying. They're difficult to intercept, as only the carrier planes can be targeted. Putin's objective is to pressure the military and political leadership through the US and civil society, forcing them into negotiations. However, the more they strike, the deeper our animosity towards Russia grows. Once considered a pro-Russian city, Kharkiv boasted many sympathizers. But look at the situation now – we're prepared to retaliate and will do so. We're not afraid. We've already shown resilience. Perhaps only occupation could be more dreadful,” Sapronov said.

Ukrainian government officials estimate that it may cost more than $10 billion to rebuild everything that has been destroyed. Kharkiv soldiers on despite relentless Russian attacks. Enterprises operate. Roads are repaired. The military fortifies defensive lines around the city. And, like Ukraine, this city awaits assistance from its allies, particularly air defense systems and F-16 fighters.