‘Nothing justifies this’: On the front line in Kharkiv, a city destroyed by Putin’s war

An attempted Russian assault had been repelled, the deluge of missile and artillery fire had died down: Captain Aleksandr Osadchy had a fleeting sense of optimism – then came the phone call he dreaded from receive from his brother.

Their 85-year-old mother, Maria, had been killed in the bombing of the village of Kamianka, in the house where the family had lived for generations, a house she had refused to leave for a safer area even as the fighting escalated.

“She was a very determined woman and she wouldn’t change her mind,” Captain Osadchy said. “Like so many people of this generation, she had a difficult life, it’s such a shame that it ended so sadly, so needlessly.”

Captain Osadchy of the 226th Cossack Volunteer Battalion told me of the high civilian casualty toll in Kharkiv, as violence continued in Ukraine’s second city, just 40 kilometers from the Russian border. Then, at one point, he stopped and quietly added that he had learned of his mother’s death just 24 hours earlier.

“In fact, she had passed away a few days ago. My brother and others tried to reach me, but communications are now very difficult, as you can imagine. I always try to process that in my mind. But we have so much to do, that’s probably not a bad thing, it’s better to keep busy,” he reflects.

Captain Osadchy’s brother, Andrei, a former soldier, had stayed home to care for their mother.

“The day after our mother’s funeral, he went to Sloviansk [in the Donbas] and joined the army. We are defending our country, our people, our families, our community, we are also avenging those who have been killed,” says Aleksandr. “We hear about negotiations, but we will continue to fight the invaders until we achieve real peace with the invaders leaving the country.”

Firefighters deal with a blaze in the city

(Alexander Osadchy)

The concept in these parts of “family, community, people” is undergoing a painful reassessment.

Vladimir Putin repeatedly repeated the narrative in the run-up to the invasion that Ukraine was a founding part of the Russian home: that the war was about liberating ethnic Russians in Ukraine who were oppressed by fascists and the new Nazis: that it was to right a historical wrong.

About 74% of Kharkiv’s 1.4 million inhabitants are Russian-speaking. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed before the start of the conflict that Moscow might try to seize the city under the pretext of “protecting” these people – an act which “will be the start of a full-scale war”.

Kharkiv is also the home base of well-known pro-Moscow politicians, such as Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian MP who was named by the British government as Putin’s chosen leader of a puppet regime after the invasion and the ‘occupation. This particular claim was far-fetched, but a deep mistrust of a “fifth column” has long existed here.

There were at least a few Russian speakers who said they would never take up arms against Russia.

One of them told me angrily during my visit to the city a month before the war that “it is unthinkable for me and my friends to pick up a gun and start fighting the Russians. We have lived together all our lives and now there are people trying to turn us into enemies and start a bloodbath.”

Kiril Semenov, a 48-year-old electrical engineer, accused the United States and the West of using Ukraine as a proxy against Russia. “And if the fighting starts, will NATO come here to fight the Russians? Of course not, they’ve already said they won’t,” he said.

Mr Semenov did not pick up a gun, but he is now part of a citizens’ group that distributes food to Ukrainian forces and people in need, as well as cleaning up after missile strikes and artillery.

An unexploded rocket stuck in a building in the city

(Kim Sengupta)

“I was right to say that NATO would not come to fight alongside Ukraine, right? We Ukrainians have to help each other. I still think the war could have been avoided,” says Semenov.

“But nothing justifies this kind of bombardment, the murder of ordinary people, like those who lived in this building,” he says, pointing to the wreckage of a 10-story residential building in Nemyshlianskyi, the neighborhood where he reside. Eight people died in the attack.

The fighting did not stop for a single day in and around Kharkiv. One of the first of seven Russian generals to be killed in this war, Major General Vitaly Gerasimov, died near here earlier this month. About 220 artillery and mortar shells were fired in 24 hours last weekend, according to the Ukrainians, some hit the neutron source nuclear facility at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology.

There was constant shelling on Monday along three of the neighborhoods we passed through – Saltivka, Oleksiyivka and Pyatyhatky – with targets ranging from the premises of an aluminum company to residential areas.

In a building in Saltivka – 90% empty, most of the residences having fled – Yevgeny Afonin did not know why the 11-storey building, where he is only one in four inhabitants, continues to be regularly bombarded.

“Four people from the same family were killed during the first week of the bombardment. Then we had a few more dead and injured and almost everyone left,” he says.

“But the shelling continues night and day. Sometimes they take a break for a few hours. But then they start again, as you can hear.

(Alexander Osadchy)

Further along the same stretch of road, Valentin Melnyk was walking on crutches. His left leg had been pricked by shrapnel when a shell fell on the road as he was driving home.

He describes what happened: “I was trying to get home before curfew. Suddenly an explosion occurred in front of me and parked cars caught fire. The metal went through the car door and through my legs. I had an operation. The doctors say I’ll need two more, but even then they don’t know if I’ll be able to walk again.

It is one of the tragic ironies of President Putin’s “war of liberation” that two largely Russian-speaking cities – Mariupol and Kharkiv – suffered the worst blows. The result, locals say, is that instead of being welcomed, Russian forces have faced provocative resistance.

Ihor Telekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv, lists the destruction since the beginning of the war: 1,177 buildings demolished, as well as 15 hospitals, 69 schools and 53 kindergartens. About 520 people were killed in the fighting, according to Ukrainian emergency services.

“The Russian army, the army of the aggressor deliberately fires on residential areas. Not just individual households, but entire neighborhoods have been affected,” says Telekhov.

The mayor recognizes that “before the start of the war, almost one in four people was in contact with relatives, acquaintances and many friends in Russia. Kharkiv has always been considered more or less loyal to Russia. Today, the attitude towards Russia, the aggressor, has changed radically, each of us is ready to defend the city to the end”.

(Alexander Osadchy)

Oleg Posohov, the Cossack battalion’s master sergeant, comments: “The Russians create their version of the story, then get angry when it doesn’t correspond to reality. The people of Kharkiv were never going to just stand by and let Putin’s troops in.

“I would say about 30% of the population here were Russian sympathizers, 25% of them are now engaged in Ukraine,” says Sergeant Posohov. “There are spies and saboteurs among the remaining five percent; we caught some of them, they were passing information and photos to the Russians to help them bomb and also to try to enter the city.

Russian forces entering Kharkiv were repelled. Anti-tank weapons, javelins, NLAWS, supplied by the United States and the United Kingdom, were very effective, according to Ukrainian forces, in close combat. A recently destroyed Russian armored personnel carrier (APC) smoking on the road to the east was an example, a soldier points out.

“But we don’t really have enough anti-tank weapons,” adds Sergeant Posohov. “If Javelins and N-LAWS are too expensive, then give us 7 RPGs. They will be good at close range, Ukrainians have always been skilled in combat.

Many members of Battalion 226 claim Cossack blood in them, hence the name given to it.

The metal went through the car door and through my legs. I had an operation. The doctors say I’ll need two more, but even then they don’t know if I’ll be able to walk again.

Valentin Melnyk, resident of Kharkiv

“One of my ancestors was a Cossack military leader, many of us have a Cossack connection. But we are Ukrainian Cossacks, not Russians. Mikhailo Koteivets, our battalion commander is a Cossack, he fought in the Soviet army in Afghanistan, he therefore knows the weaknesses of the Russians.

At the underground headquarters of one of the most capable and experienced Ukrainian units in Kharkiv, the soldiers had a quick lunch before heading out on a mission. Oleg Supareka, who assembled a combat team, also has experience of service in the Soviet forces, having been deployed in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the mid-1990s.

“Judging from their poor performance in this war, not much has changed, there is a lot of corruption and inefficiency. I maintained contact with the Russian army for some time, and they spent more more time on ceremonial duties than on combat practice,” explains Commander Supareka.

Like many others on the front line, he was not optimistic that the current round of negotiations would lead to the outbreak of peace in the immediate future.

“These talks have been going on for a long time, we will see what happens. They are talking, but meanwhile the Russians keep attacking this town.

A group of residents were cleaning up a large amount of debris outside a large building hit by a missile strike.

Aleksandr Osadchy and his mother

(Alexander Osadchy)

“It’s a building with an interesting past,” says one of the volunteer cleaners, Denis Zhuravlov, an associate professor of history at Karazin University in Kharkiv.

“It was the headquarters of the Red Army in 1919, then it became the headquarters of the counter-revolutionary White Guard under General [Anton] Denikin. Then it was a well-known courthouse until this attack.

“One can’t help but think this is just another example of the Russians trying to erase our history.”

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