Anger and defiance in Kharkiv as advancing Russian troops draw closer

Residents of Kharkiv have been monitoring reports with increasing urgency for the past five days as a new Russian offensive edges closer to the city. The stresses of war are nothing new to the Kharkiv population, which has been under daily bombardment since the start of the current year. Nevertheless, the opening of a new front less than half an hour’s drive from the city’s northern suburbs has raised the stakes dramatically.

Since the Russian offensive began last Friday, harrowing footage of burning villages and fleeing civilians has flooded social media, adding to the sense of mounting danger. Evacuation efforts are still underway in the border region, with around eight thousand people so far brought from nearby communities to Kharkiv.

So far, Russian troops have made modest progress, advancing up to eight kilometers into Ukraine and capturing a number of Ukrainian villages. While the incursion is currently regarded as too small in scale to threaten Kharkiv itself, the reappearance of Russian soldiers in the region for the first time since 2022 has sparked considerable alarm and dismay.

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Russia’s new offensive did not come as a complete surprise, of course. On the contrary, the build-up of Russian troops across the border had been common knowledge for weeks. Kharkiv Regional Council member and political sciences professor Halyna Kuts says she has been preparing for some time, and has a bag of emergency items packed and ready.

Kuts is one of many people in Kharkiv to express anger at restrictions preventing Ukraine from using Western weapons to strike targets inside Russia. Due to fears of possible Russian retaliation, most of Kyiv’s partners insist the military aid they supply only be used within Ukraine’s borders. These restrictions prevented Ukraine from attacking concentrations of Russian troops as they prepared for the current offensive. “We could have destroyed them, but we were not allowed to,” says Kuts.

With Russian troops now gradually moving toward the city, Kuts believes the only option is to “dig in” and prepare to defend Kharkiv. “This is no longer a center of culture and science; this is a military fortress. Everyone should be carrying a gas mask, bandages, and water with them at all times,” she says.

In recent days, it has become much rarer to encounter children on the streets of the city. Some families have now left Kharkiv due to the deteriorating security situation, heading west for the relative safety of Poltava, Kyiv, or beyond. Youngsters who remain are obliged to attend classes underground or online.

Olha Kashyrina, the co-founder of a Kharkiv publishing house specializing in children’s books, has spent recent evenings watching the glow of artillery fire on the horizon as fighting edges closer and closer to her home in Kharkiv’s Saltivka residential district. She estimates that there is now less than twenty kilometers separating her from the Russian army. For the time being, Kashyrina continues working in her publishing business and volunteering to help evacuees find temporary accommodation. However, if Russian troops advance further and the city comes within artillery range, she plans to leave.

Others insist they will not leave Kharkiv under any circumstances. Kashyrina’s publishing house colleague Svitlana Feldman has spent recent days stockpiling power banks, generators, and headlights for employees. “Adaptability is the key skill now,” she explains. One of the most dangerous aspects of daily life in Kharkiv is commuting to the office, so the company now encourages working from home.

Some Kharkiv residents have already fled from the Russian invasion once and do not intend to do so again. Liudmila, who came to Kharkiv from Donetsk when it was first occupied by Russia ten years ago, says she will not evacuate and is instead placing her faith in the Ukrainian army to defend the city, much as it did in 2022. This is a common refrain in today’s Kharkiv. While almost everyone is watching anxiously for signs of an escalation in the current offensive, there is also a mood of defiance and plenty of confidence in the city’s ability to defend itself.

Defiance can be expressed in different ways. For Halyna Kuts, this means proceeding with Kharkiv’s annual Vyshyvanka Day parade on May 16 in one of the city’s underground metro stations. This colorful annual event, which features people sporting Ukraine’s traditional embroidered shirts, is widely seen as a celebration of Ukrainian patriotism and national identity. With Russian troops advancing toward the city, Kuts says it is now more important than ever to host this year’s parade as planned.

Maria Avdeeva is a Kharkiv-based Ukrainian security analyst and strategic communication expert.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: A police officer helps a local resident during an evacuation to Kharkiv due to Russian shelling, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in the town of Vovchansk in Kharkiv region, Ukraine May 13, 2024. (REUTERS/Stringer)