“The enemy is planning something”: Kharkiv fears another Russian attack | Ukraine

In the dense pine forests on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Constantine watched over his troops while they inspected their weapons.

Some were 1970s smear grenades in preparation for an even older 57mm AZP S-60 anti-aircraft gun developed just after World War II.

Since the invasion, the West has spent billions in military assistance to help Ukraine repel the Russian offensive, most recently supplying the advanced Himars missile systems to Kyiv.

But in the trenches near Ukraine’s second-largest city, those arms shipments felt a world away.

“We just didn’t see any Western weapons here. We can only rely on our Soviet-era weaponry,” said Konstantin, an imposing figure leading the 228th Battalion of the 127th Brigade Territorial Defense Forces.

For four months, Konstantin has been fighting Russian forces just a few kilometers from Kharkiv with his Territorial Defense Formation – a unit that is part of the military but made up mostly of inexperienced volunteers.

“Based on our information, the Russians are planning something near Kharkiv,” the commander said.

Soldiers grease 50-year-old grenades in the Kharkiv region.
Ukrainian soldiers grease 50-year-old grenades in the Kharkiv region. Photo: Jelle Krings

“We’re going to win either way,” he quickly added.

“With Western weapons, fewer of our boys would have to die to win.”

“Every day they test our lines”

Kharkiv is 40 km from the Russian border and has great strategic importance as the gateway to eastern Ukraine. Russia tried to conquer it in the first week of the war, sending tank columns and military police units towards the city.

At the end of February Kharkiv was almost surrounded on three sides, tanks, planes and artillery shelled the city. At first it looked as if Russian troops would march straight into the center of Kharkiv. But Ukrainian forces regrouped and stopped the Russian advance in the first weeks of March.

What followed were two Ukrainian counter-offensives, first in late March and then in May, which pushed Russian forces away from the outskirts of the city. At the same time, Ukraine also recaptured some of the burnt-out villages that Moscow had occupied.

Apart from a brief lull about three weeks ago, Russia’s relentless shelling of the city, which came mostly from the Russian border town of Belgorod, has never stopped, destroying more than 2,000 buildings and killing more than 900 civilians, according to regional government governor, Oleh Synehubov.

In the past two weeks, the city has seen some of the heaviest bombardment since the beginning of the war, and senior Ukrainian officials and local military officials fear another Russian offensive is imminent.

“We believe Russia may launch a new attack in the near future,” said Andrii Mogyla, a Ukrainian soldier who declined to say in which unit he served, citing secrecy concerns.

Mogyla, who spoke to the Guardian from a makeshift office at a former language school, said he first fought on the front lines but added that his background as a software developer meant he was soon transferred to another unit to fight the war “analyze”.

“The Russians usually start with rocket attacks, then heavy artillery, and then tanks and infantry. We see that the first part is already happening,” Mogyla said.

Equally concerning, according to Mogyla, was the latest information his team received from “Western partners,” including satellite images showing Russia massing new troops and military equipment on the front lines near Kharkiv.

Mogyla pointed to his desk screen and showed images that he said indicated a recent convergence of forces on the east side of Kharkiv near the Russian-held village of Shevchenkove. According to Mogyla, about 100 army units, including 50 tanks and eight battalions, were transferred there three weeks ago.

“We can’t be sure when, but they will attack in the near future,” he said, urging the West to increase shipments of heavy artillery and reconnaissance drones.

Members of Commander Konstantin Tszyu's 228th Battalion in Kharkiv Oblast.
Members of Commander Konstantin Tszyu’s 228th Battalion in Kharkiv Oblast. Photo: Jelle Krings/The Guardian

“In this part of Ukraine we are even more inferior than in Donbass. Ukraine has one artillery piece versus 15 Russian artillery pieces,” he said.

Keeping Kharkiv from shelling, Mogyla said, is a particularly difficult task given that it is only 40 kilometers from the border.

Analysts have warned that it would be impossible to stop the Russian bombardment without hitting Russia with counter-battery fire, which Ukraine has vowed not to do with newly-supplied Western weapons.

The sound of Russia’s military superiority can be heard in Kharkiv almost every night as Russia fires its Iskander and other missiles from across the border. The city then goes eerily dark to avoid targeting Russian planes or artillerymen.

In recent weeks, shelling, which has mostly hit residential areas, has killed more than 20 civilians in the area, including an eight-year-old girl.

“The enemy is planning something, he is assembling troops. But we don’t know their schedule,” said commander Konstantin, this time speaking from the nuclear bunker of the Kharkiv regional state administration building, which was hit by an airstrike on the morning of March 1.

“Every day they test our lines. They sent reconnaissance units to see where our weaknesses lay, but we were very successful in repelling them.”

And while both Constantine and Mogyla said evidence pointed to a new Russian attack in the region, they insisted Moscow was unable to capture the city of Kharkiv.

Ukrainian soldiers inspect an obsolete C-60 artillery piece that they have just repaired.
Ukrainian soldiers inspect an obsolete C-60 artillery piece that they have just repaired. Photo: Jelle Krings

Similarly, despite continued progress in eastern Ukraine, including the capture of the key city of Sievierodonetsk, Western intelligence predicts the Russian military will need to regroup before launching a new major offensive across the country.

Instead, without new Western weapons for Ukraine, the battle for Kharkiv would likely drag on for months, if not years, Mogyla said.

“Both parties have started to defend themselves well and not much progress is being made on either side.”

At the same time, Ukrainian officials are warning that brigades like Constantine’s led could soon run out of Soviet-era weapons after many believe it is an eight-year secret Russian campaign to bomb key ammunition depots in eastern Europe with weapons destined for Ukraine.

“We have nowhere else to go”

Fear of a Russian return, however, still dominates the mood in previously occupied villages outside Kharkiv.

Nadia with her granddaughter Vladislava and friend Dasha.  Vladislava's father Oleksii Ketler died during shelling in Koropy near Mala Rohan by Russian forces.
Nadia with her granddaughter Vladislava and friend Dasha. Vladislava’s father Oleksii Ketler died during shelling in Koropy near Mala Rohan by Russian forces. Photo: Jelle Krings/The Guardian

Memories of the Russian occupation come fresh in Malaya Rohan, a small village about 10 miles east of the city.

On February 25, tanks rolled into the village for the first time, surprising a large part of the population.

“At first we thought these were our guys holding a military exercise. It all happened so fast,” said Dmitry, who cleared his small piece of land from the rubble of the Russian soldiers.

Proximity to the Russian border meant that Dmitry and others did not have time to evacuate, and many in the village spent the month under Russian occupation in their basements, only occasionally coming out for food and water.

Russian troops took over some of the houses in Malaya Rohan, including Dmitry’s, where they looted and stole, he said, “everything down to the last spoonful.”

A damaged house marks a street on the outskirts of Mala Rohan.
A damaged house marks a street on the outskirts of Mala Rohan. Photo: Jelle Krings/The Guardian

The village still feels – and smells – like a war zone, despite being liberated from occupation at the end of March.

A visit by the Guardian to a burned-out house belonging to the occupying forces found Russian army uniforms, playing cards and even gift cards from Moscow.

Ksenia, an elderly woman who returned to Malaya Rohan last week, said many in the village were worried about a new Russian advance. But those whose homes were not destroyed had no choice but to return.

“We have nowhere else to go, we share a one bedroom apartment with three families. This was our only home and we need to rebuild it,” she said.

Maria Miroshnyk (77) works in her grandson's garden in Mala Rohan.
Maria Miroshnyk (77) works in her grandson’s garden in Mala Rohan. Photo: Jelle Krings/The Guardian

In Ksenia’s summer garden, next to an apple tree, the burnt carcass of a Russian tank had replaced the picnic table.

“I’m still getting used to that uninvited guest in my backyard,” she said.

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