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Is Kharkiv under danger of occupation?

By Matthew Parish

I have just returned from Kharkiv, the large Ukrainian city some 30 kilometres from the border with Russia, and a number of things have changed since I was there last, in October 2023. Whereas before the city was bustling with life, although quiet after dark, now it is not. My impression is that a number of civilians have left since October of last year, and it was already a quiet city after refugees fled in huge numbers following the Russian bombardment of what was once Ukraine’s second largest city in the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. What has happened since October has been a campaign of relentless and wanton terror attacks upon the civilian population using Soviet-era cruise missiles. These missiles are not very accurate and there are no obvious military targets to speak of in central Kharkiv. Nevertheless the Russians have been firing these inaccurate missiles into the centre of the city to strike fear into its remaining residents. This calls for an explanation as to why.

My own theory is that the Russians are preparing for a renewed assault upon Kharkiv, and one of the ways they are doing this is by driving out as many of the Ukraine-sympathising members of the population as possible by means of indiscriminate terror attacks. I noticed that a lot of the few people left on the streets are elderly, and mostly Russian speaking. The city has a substantially lower over troop presence than it did before, and the presence of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is not obvious. The city is not currently dangerous to visit; the Russian missile attacks have stopped, I think because they have achieved their goal of driving the Ukrainian sympathisers out. What you have left is a city nervously waiting for the Russians to come back.

I think we are going to find a renewed Russian spring offensive in which another siege of Kharkiv is eminently possible. The city’s proximity to the Russian border makes it an attractive target. So does the city’s historical industrial base. Strategically it is important if Russia wants to cement her hold on occupied Donbas territories. Therefore I think there could well be a renewed Russian offensive, and the recent volley of missile attacks directed at civilians and at random was a precursor to that.

I walked around Kharkiv freely. Nobody stopped me. I felt perfectly safe. Although I took body armour, I did not use it and although I saw a lot of evidence of renewed damage to civilian buildings in the centre I was informed that there had not been many attacks recently. The few young people who remain in the city just seem reconciled to the possibility of a renewed Russian invasion of the city, and they are making plans to leave if necessary or to stay if possible. The streets are empty after dark and for the most part they are empty during the day as well. There is no cosmopolitan vibrancy of sense of defiance in the city that I found as recently as October 2023. Instead there is only a nervous impatience on the part of an ever-diminishing population as to what might happen next, once the winter fighting season is brought to a conclusion in a couple of weeks and infantry and armour, such as tanks, can get moving again with the warmer weather.

I am told that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have lined the border heavily in the Kharkiv region, making sure that their positions are reinforced. Nevertheless the Russian border in this region is long and much of it is remote, and the Russian Armed Forces are amassing hundreds of thousands of troops in the region again as well as untold quantities of armour. While the sides are dug into complex networks of trenches in the Donbas and Dnipro river regions of the front line, in Kharkiv the main road to Russia remains in place as do a series of side roads, fields and other geographical features that make for scant natural borders to resist a renewed Russian ground assault.

In short, I found my stay in Kharkiv bleak and depressing. Few people would talk to me about their fears, but those that did acknowledged that the idea of another Russian invasion of the city in the coming weeks or months is a real possibility. Were Kharkiv to fall, that would represent a catastrophe for Ukraine. More likely, perhaps, is that the Ukrainian Armed Forces would remobilise in the Kharkiv region, taking away resources from elsewhere on the front line and in particular along the Dnipro River, compromising their tenuous advances further south, in order to defend Kharkiv street by street in close quarters fighting of the most deadly kind. Kharkiv would then become completely destroyed, a sort of giant Bakhmut, in which nothing would be left standing as these massive warring armies stand off one against the other and spend months fighting over every building, like Stalingrad all over again. God bless Kharkiv and her benighted people.


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