Ukrainian forces take on Russian onslaught to save Kharkiv amid raining missiles
A residential complex on the outskirts of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine is at the moment very calm as children’s parks and schools once bustling with kids have now turned into a battlefield.
Master Sergeant Valeriy Stepanov briefs on the status of the fighting here. As he speaks, the quietness is shattered by the booming guns. Everybody is on the ground, taking cover as India Today’s video journalist Lalit Joshi rolls the camera to catch every glimpse in the thick of action amid continuous bombardments.
Minutes later, it’s back to calmness, which is only temporary. Sergeant Stepanov says this is a regular feature several times a day, maybe repeated every two-three hours.
The border is about 20km away but the Russian forces are only a couple of kilometres away, says the Master Sergeant. The Ukrainian troops have dug trenches around the buildings in case they have to take on an advance from the Russians; a ground invasion by the Russian forces into Kharkiv is not ruled out.
The only residents here are soldiers of the Ukrainian army who live in bunkers built under the apartment buildings. Homes shattered, top floors completely blown off: there is gloom all around.
With residents evacuated, Saltivka near Kharkiv is a ghost town. There is a no-entry zone for civilians after the heavy bombardment.
Holding on to Kharkiv is critical for Ukraine. The region shares a border with Russia and also the neighbouring areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, part of the Donbas region completely in Russian control. Russian forces by exerting pressure could move into Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine after Kyiv, an action that could slice off the eastern part of Ukraine completely. The port city of Mariupol, in the south of Donetsk, is already under Russian control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said Ukraine’s future will be decided by the outcome of the conflict in the east and south, as Russia is focusing on the region.
In this context, Kharkiv becomes important for Ukraine as it could deny Russia complete occupation of the eastern front till the Ukrainian forces are able to hold on to it.
The 229 Battalion of the 127th Brigade, which India Today visited, is one of the formations of the Ukrainian army defending Kharkiv. At one of their key locations, a team is guarding the forests along the main highway that could be used by the Russians to move into Kharkiv. The highway also connects Kharkiv to Kyiv.
The troops carry out exercises in the jungles and lay ambushes in preparation for defence in case there is a ground invasion.
Col Maksim Zinchenko, the commanding officer of the battalion, says a lot of Russian activity has been noticed around Kharkiv. “We will be there and fight till the end, till they completely retreat,” the officer said as his soldiers went about their drills.
The battalion has been pressing for more resources in the wake of the growing threat. The long list of military equipment to be ready for a long haul includes rifles with night vision, quadcopters to pick up Russian movements, off-road vehicles to move into forest terrain, and much more.
Many of these soldiers are new recruits, not trained for warfare as they joined only during the war. They might be short of battle experience, but there is no dearth of courage to fight against all odds. It’s this spirit that has turned what was expected to be a David vs Goliath contest into a sort of stalemate and they are ready to grind it out for the long haul.