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16 Jul 2024 18:36
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  •   Home > News > International

    Russian offensive stalls in the unbreakable city of Kharkiv as Ukraine pushes back

    Ukrainian troops have started reclaiming territory taken by Russia in the north-east while Kharkiv's residents continue to live under constant threat.

    After launching a surprise offensive in Ukraine's north-east, Russia's forces have stalled and are now being pushed back by newly armed Ukrainian soldiers.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin's audacious advance towards Kharkiv city in May was launched at a vulnerable time for Kyiv, but Moscow didn't gain much ground at all.

    It forced thousands of people to evacuate and destroyed several border villages. It was arguably part of his plan.

    But as the dust settled, Russian soldiers only managed to claim a small area on the outskirts of Vovchans'k, 70 kilometres from Kharkiv.

    It was Putin's second attempt to advance on the city after Ukrainian troops successfully repelled his forces following the invasion in 2022.

    Given Kharkiv's proximity to the border, Moscow has had a huge advantage since the start of the war.

    It's pummelled the city and its outskirts with long-range surface-to-air missiles such as S-300s and glide bombs, while Ukraine hasn't been able to match its firepower.

    "This is a missile whose task is not to hit the plane, but to create a huge number of small fragments on its path. Therefore … the explosion is very powerful," Colonel Yurii Povch, a spokesperson for a tactical group in Kharkiv, told the ABC.

    "Secondly, it causes a large amount of debris. Using such weapons in civilian neighbourhoods, what else can you call it other than deliberate murder and terrorism," he said.

    What turned around fortunes for the Ukrainians in May was America relaxing a long-held rule that prevented troops from firing US-supplied weapons into Russian territory.

    Ukraine used the American-supplied HIMARS-guided rocket launchers to take out four Russian S-300s, which had been hitting Kharkiv from a position close to the border. 

    It very quickly changed the situation on the ground in the north-east, stopping Russia's offensive almost in its tracks and allowing Ukrainian troops time to relocate from the south and east.

    "It was a disaster for the Russians because of the sheer number of losses — troops and equipment," former retired US Army officer General Ben Hodges said.

    "Their manpower advantage is not endless, and this is going to have a longer-term impact on keeping this war going.

    "It was also a disaster because, finally, the Biden administration agreed to let Ukraine use weapons across the border. The White House has now realised that the continuous Russian threats of escalation were unfounded and empty.

    "Whatever the Russians may have accomplished in that area, they're now in the process of losing it. It's not worth the cost they paid in terms of dead soldiers and equipment."

    Many Ukrainians have now been forced underground, adapting to a new way of living two years after Russia first disrupted their everyday lives.

    A city underground

    Despite the air raid sirens that interrupt the daily hum of the city and frequently pierce the silence at night, life has carried on in Kharkiv.

    The sirens ring so regularly that no-one runs for cover anymore.

    As with any protracted conflict, those who live through it try to cling to some semblance of normal life.

    The locals who stayed, or returned after evacuating in the early days of the war, have simply adapted to living in a constant state of bombardment.

    They live every day with the threat of death. It takes less than a minute for a missile to strike the city once fired from Russian territory.

    This left no choice but for many normal activities to go underground.

    In parts of Kharkiv, which have been heavily shelled, new schools have been built entirely underground.

    The old administration rooms that follow the underground metro railway lines have been transformed into colourful classrooms for kindergarten students.

    "This is very necessary in our region, it's a very unstable situation and children must be protected, in a safe place," said teacher Olga Oleksandrivna.

    "Being here, they abstract from the world, from what is happening on the street, from what could be.

    "They were very scared at first when we started the class."

    Just toddlers when the war broke out in 2022, these six-year-olds have never known school any other way.

    Moving them underground was the only way to keep them safe, but their teachers hope there will be a time when life returns to normal.

    "We all believe that everything will finally end, it will be safe. We will repair our kindergartens and schools; everything will be fine, and the children will study," she said.

    'Stay where you are and do what you are good at'

    On the city's streets, like clockwork, first responders quickly clean up the remnants of rocket attacks.

    It's a daily grind for emergency services but they stay anyway.

    As we tour the city's opera theatre, which boasts the second largest stage in Europe, the lights in the dimly lit staircase flicker to darkness.

    Our host shrugs his shoulders and says the power's gone out.

    Blackouts are common now after Russia destroyed the region's three major power stations, leaving residents and businesses with intermittent and unpredictable electricity.

    After closing its doors for two years, the theatre has just opened for business again, but the stage, chairs and lights have been moved to the safety of the basement.

    Opera singer, Volodymyr Kozlov, is performing in one of the theatre's opening opera shows.

    He chose to stay in Ukraine after the war broke out and continues performing where he can.

    "If, through our concerts, we enable people to disconnect from this and sleep peacefully for one or more nights, that's good," he said.

    From subway stations to the frontline in the east of the country, Mr Kozlov has tried to keep life normal for his fellow Ukrainians.

    "Mr Zelenskyy, our president, said at the beginning of the war: if you want to be useful to your country, stay where you are and do what you are good at.

    "It affected me, and I still do, I'm here doing what I've been doing all my life.

    "The concerts were really cool, and people really looked at it differently.

    "When you enter, you see everything is grey. Both people and the premises are all grey. And when the concert was over, everything seemed to shine.

    "Eyes shine and people smile," he said.

    Like many people who have remained in Kharkiv, Mr Kozlov has a double life as a volunteer.

    In his spare time, he makes camouflaged nets for military vehicles and delivers supplies to soldiers.

    "In these brigades, serving and defending, are us: Really smart, intelligent, educated people — lawyers, professors, sportsmen, actors, people — who at the very beginning of the invasion joined the army to defend our country.

    "It's not just soldiers but everyday people who dedicated themselves to defending — so they just joined the army and started to defend their families," he said.

    The dynamic on the battlefield could quickly change if Ukraine finally receives long-sought-after F-16 fighter jets from Denmark to help counter Russian air forces.

    But as the summer sets in and fighting intensifies, neither side appears to have the manpower or artillery to strike a decisive blow.

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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