As Russia edges toward a possible offensive on Kharkiv, some residents flee

AP , Saturday 20 Apr 2024

A 79-year-old woman makes the sign of the cross and, gripping her cane, leaves her home in a quaint village in northeast Ukraine.

Russian rockets are launched against Ukraine from Russia s Belgorod region, seen from Kharkiv, Ukrai
Russian rockets are launched against Ukraine from Russia s Belgorod region, seen from Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, April 18, 2024. AP

 

Torn screens, shattered glass and scorched trees litter the yard of Olha Faichuk's apartment building in Lukiantsi, north of the city of Kharkiv. Abandoned on a nearby bench is a shrapnel-pierced cellphone that belonged to one of two people killed when a Russian bomb struck, leaving a blackened crater in its wake.

“God, forgive me for leaving my home, bless me on my way,” Faichuk said, taking one last look around before slowly shuffling to an evacuation vehicle.

Unlike embattled front-line villages further east, attacks on the border village near the Russian region of Belgorod, were rare until a wave of air strikes began in late March.

Russia seemingly exploited air defense shortages in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, to pummel the region's energy infrastructure and terrorize its 1.3 million residents. Nearly 200,000 city dwellers remain without power, while 50% of the region's population still suffers from outages, officials say.

As utilities clamber to meet electricity demand before the onset of winter in six months, Russia continues to unleash deadly aerial-glide bombs to drive more residents away. Some officials and analysts warn it could be a concerted effort by Moscow to shape conditions for a summer offensive to seize the city.

Acknowledging the need to strengthen air defenses, Oleh Syniehubov, the governor of Kharkiv region, said: “We clearly understand that the enemy actually uses this vulnerability every day.”

Kharkiv's struggles reflect a wider problem: As Western allies drag their feet in delivering promised aid to Kyiv, Moscow is patiently escalating until — it hopes — Ukrainian resistance snaps.

 

30 SECONDS

The attacks, which began on March 22, annihilated Kharkiv’s ability to generate and distribute electricity.

Missiles fired from Belgorod take 30 seconds to reach their targets in Kharkiv, just 30 kilometers (18 miles) away, which is about the same amount of time that air defense systems need to respond. In the last barrage, Russia launched 22 missiles simultaneously to swarm and disorient those defenses, Syniehubov said.

Energy workers also had just 30 seconds to find cover.

At CHP-5, a plant in Kharkiv that generates electricity and heat, the acrid stench of smoke still hangs in the air. Its damaged generator and turbine must be replaced, according to plant manager Oleksandr Minkovich.

The plant supplied 50% of the region’s electricity and 35% of the city’s heating, Minkovich said. It has been attacked six times since the Russian invasion began, but the latest barrage destroyed “any possibility” for power generation, he said.

Spare parts for the Soviet-era plant can only be sourced from Russia, and full restoration would likely take years, he said. But Minkovitch hopes Ukraine's Western partners will provide modern technology to decentralize power in time for winter.

Without this, he said, he's unsure how to meet demand.

To keep the lights on, power is diverted to Kharkiv from neighboring regions, but this process overloads the grid and causes unscheduled blackouts. Businesses rarely know when, and for how long, they can rely on the grid.

“We wake up every day and have no idea if we will have power or not,” said Oleh Khromov, the owner of a popular Kharkiv restaurant, Protagonist.

 

UNLIVABLE HOMES

Of dozens of former residents, only 10 remain in Faichuk’s apartment block in Lukiantsi.

“Why are they killing us?” Valentyna Semenchenko, 71, said, weeping as her friend was driven away.

Serhii Novikov, a volunteer with the NGO “I Am Saved,″ which organizes evacuations, said the uptick in Russia’s use of aerial-glide bombs is making more communities near the Belgorod border uninhabitable.

If a bomb even falls close to a house, then that “house that is not suitable for habitation because the shock wave is so large that it destroys everything in its path,” Novikov said.

Yulia Shdanevych made the painful decision to leave her home in the nearby village of Liptsi after two adults and a child were killed in an April 10 air strike. Earlier missile and mortar attacks didn't cause any deaths, but that changed with the introduction of aerial bombs.

“Before they would target one manufacturing building,” Shdanevych said. “Now it’s as though they are attacking civilians directly.”

There was no power at a Kharkiv shelter when Shdanevych arrived, and she filled out paperwork by the light of a battery-powered lamp. Director Ihor Kasinksy said the facility suffers from power and water outages.

Before the war, 2,000 people lived in the village of Rubizhne, 14 kilometers from the Russian border. Today, only 60 remain, including Olha Bezborodova. But she is uncertain how long she will stay.

“It's really hard. If we had light it would be easier,” Bezborodova said, cradling her toddler. She said organizations have helped her to fix her home, “but they (the Russians) are not finished, they are bombing all the time.”

 

THE RESISTANCE

Ukrainian officials are divided on the significance of the recent attacks on Kharkiv.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said it is no secret that Russia wants to take the region, but Ukraine’s military intelligence calls rumors of an upcoming offensive a “psychological operation” to stir panic. Analysts argue a larger offensive can't be ruled out, pointing to the intensity of recent assaults.

Ukraine is not taking any chances and has established fortifications on the outskirts of the city.

Oleksander, an engineer with one company involved in that work, said crews have been digging anti-tank ditches, laying dragon’s teeth and building a network of trenches to keep Russian forces at bay. He was not permitted to share his last name or that of his company for security reasons.

He has a deadline of early May to complete the job. “We will be on time,” he said.

Meanwhile, cafes and restaurants remain busy in Kharkiv, where locals have grown accustomed to speaking over the roar of generators. In Protagonist, an alternative menu presents options to order when the power is off.

“The people who are staying here and keeping businesses open and trying to do something, they are not tragic characters with nowhere to go,” said Khromov. “They are a special kind of perverted enthusiast who are trying to make sense of it, who are still interested in building something.”

At a bakery nearby, workers manually record sales, so they can ration power to keep food cool.

“We try to cope,” said Oleksandra Silkina, 34.

“We have been attacked since 2022, all the time, so we are used to these attacks,” she added. “We won’t leave this city. It’s our city.”

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