First impressions of Kharkiv in its current condition are not particularly attractive. Although the city does not feel dangerous and you do not feel at risk of attack, the city has acquired a front line quality to it due to a number of apparently arbitrary Russian missile and drone attacks on the city centre. The net result is that people are huddled in coffee shops that are just in the form of wooden shacks; many of the shops are closed (although the main department store remains open); and there isn’t really any daily activity. People go about their minimum business and then they go back home and they watch the news and wait.
There is no need for body armour in Kharkiv and no need for paranoia about security. The levels of bombardment of the city are not such as those found in Kherson, in which you hear a relentless pounding of the guns as mortars and shells explode around you on every side. On its face, Kharkiv seems calm but there is a deep unease shot through the faces of all the people you see on the street and this makes the environment exceptionally tense.
Since I was last here in October, there has been a substantial increase in the amount of war damage suffered by buildings in the city centre. Now virtually every building on every corner has been hit. To repeat, it is not like Kherson. It is not as though the streets are empty and you can see puffs and flashes around every corner. Rather there is a sense that the city is being softened up, and still more civilians are being driven out. Those that remain are either stoical or they may simply be anticipating a renewed Russian attempt at occupation. That is what I fear the most.
The population of Kharkiv continue predominantly to speak Russian, although they are well educated. Those who have read my prior diary entries about Kharkiv will recall that it was the capital of Ukrainian culture in the Soviet era, built up from a historical town into an industrial super-city or megalopolis: something that the Soviet Union could be proud of, with the finest Neo-Stalinist architecture and the best universities. This cultural quality is reflected in the high levels of education of the people here and the fact that a large number of them speak English, even in a small coffee shop or restaurant. If anything, more English is spoken here in Kharkiv than even in Lviv. Nevertheless the city’s cultural affiliation with the Soviet Union renders it all the more susceptible to the Russian idea that really this is a Russian city. Recall that it is so close to the Russian border and during the Soviet era, particularly during the inter-war period when Kharkiv served as the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine but also after World War II, the city was the subject of immigration by large numbers of ethnic Russians.
Now I strongly fear that Russia is planning to seize Kharkiv again as part of her renewed spring offensive that will begin towards the end of February: possibly earlier in light of the moderate winters that Ukraine is suffering so far. I’m not sure what the point of spending a lot more time here is. This is as though a city waiting for something to go wrong, for the Russians to arrive at their doors once again, and until that happens the town is essentially empty and in suspense. Daily economic activity has come to a halt in what was once Ukraine’s second largest city; the only buildings I could see people going into and coming out of were churches (of which there are many in the city, in a nod to Ukrainian cultural heritage traditions) and also the central municipal building. People are presumably surviving on government handouts because there doesn’t seem to be much money here.
Something else I noticed was the lack of a tangible Ukrainian Armed Forces presence. I wonder how equipped Ukraine’s military might be for a sudden attack by Russian over the border, because a city this close to Russia’s frontier ought to be heavily militarised and it is not obviously so. It would be a moral and psychological catastrophe for Ukraine if she were to lose Kharkiv, and the city once occupied by Russia could be used as a supply line for assaults elsewhere in the east, in the Donbas region and around the northeastern city of Sumy. Therefore it is imperative that more resources are devoted to defending Kharkiv because I perceive a real risk of a second assault here by the Russians. They tried once before at the beginning of this the second Russian invasion of Ukraine, and they might well try again shortly.
So in conclusion Kharkiv is not what I thought I would find here. It is not a city going through hell with daily rocket attacks but there has been a series of strikes across the city centre that have left more scars on the buildings and certainly upon the psychology of the people. The goal I think is to drive out a proportion of the remaining civilian population in order to soften the city up for another Russian attack and attempt at occupation.
Now if I am right about this gloomy scenario, then it begs the question what the west ought to be doing about it. Because the very territorial integrity of Ukraine is at stake if Kharkiv were to fall into Russian hands. It was regarded as a jewel in the Soviet crown and given that Vladimir Putin’s imperialist ambitions seem to be to recreate the Soviet Union along borders as broad as he feels able to push into central Europe, Kharkiv is highly likely to be his next prize. In the meantime western troops - the only real deterrent to Russian militarist aggression - are nowhere near to be seen. Now I realise the significance of trying to drive foreign troops out of Sloviansk, a city just down the road from Kharkiv: it is to remove all international presence from this northeastern part of Ukraine, so that in time it may be absorbed into Russia.
If Putin is allowed to embrace this strategy without the stiffest opposition, then Ukraine’s future is at stake and then all central Europe comes into play. I have heard the theory before that Kharkiv is the Achilles’s heel in the Ukrainian front line and now I have come here myself I have seen that this is precisely so. It is a chilling, vulnerable, sad and unnerving place, from where the journalists have fled and the military fibres are twined thinly. There is nothing here between downtown Kharkiv and the Russians, and whereas the Ukrainian Armed Forces are dug in deeply just south of here in the Donbas, in Kharkiv they are not apparently mobilised in anywhere near adequate numbers. A second assault on Kharkiv could be just around the corner, and we in the West need to start making plans for that prospect right now. Not tomorrow, but today.