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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Russia is trying to force Ukrainians to abandon their second-biggest city

Local residents watch as rescuers work at the site of a missile strike in the center of Kharkiv, on April 7, 2024, amid the Russian invasion in Ukraine.    (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Daryna Krasnolutska, Jennifer Jacobs and Alberto Nardelli Bloomberg News

Ukrainian and Western officials see Russia’s escalated bombardment of Ukraine’s No. 2 city as a way to force the evacuation of civilians, they said.

Kharkiv, a northeastern city less than an hour’s drive from the Russian border, has been hit with an escalating barrage of missiles, drones and heavy guided bombs over the past month. The assault has battered power-generation infrastructure and left swathes of residential buildings in ruins.

The city — whose pre-war population was about 1.5 million — has come under regular attack since Russia’s invasion began in 2022. But the Kremlin’s latest action looks like a coordinated effort to cut off supplies and create conditions that make the city uninhabitable, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

The siege of Kharkiv is one of the main thrusts of Russia’s military operation, which has exploited Ukraine’s dwindling artillery supplies and air defense as well as a disadvantage on manpower. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops are also mounting a sustained attack on Ukraine’s energy system nationwide and making some advances across parts of the front line as Western officials fear Kyiv’s military may be nearing a breaking point.

Russian forces tried and failed to capture Kharkiv in the first weeks of the war, a victory for the city’s mostly Russian-speaking population, which from the beginning has defied Putin’s justification for the invasion — that Ukrainians and Russians are one people.

But more than two years since Putin ordered the invasion, living conditions in the city are increasingly perilous. The damage is extensive enough, and the attacks so unrelenting, that authorities will struggle to restore capacity before the cold sets in next winter, if indeed many locals are still there.

Key Target

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry warned of “hostile disinformation,” citing purported notifications that Kharkiv was being evacuated as Russian troops surrounded it.

“The Russian occupiers, unable to achieve what they wanted on the battlefield, are trying to sow panic and chaos in Ukrainian society,” the ministry warned on Telegram April 2.

The authorities aren’t ready to give up on the city. Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov announced a plan to restore and distribute the power supply across Kharkiv and the surrounding region, where some 200,000 residents are still without electricity, according to a statement posted on social media platform X.

Ukraine has also stepped up requests from allies to deliver more energy supplies. Energy Minister German Galushchenko said “almost all” local power generation has been destroyed in the barrages, which have also hit efforts to bring some power online since the assault began.

“Winter will be a challenge for us,” Galushchenko told journalists in Brussels. “We are discussing ways we can quickly increase capacity.”

President Joe Biden’s administration has been discussing how the U.S. can help with energy aid, according to people familiar with the situation.

Almost nobody is predicting that Kremlin forces will be able to seize the sprawling city any time soon. Ukraine’s military is fortifying its defenses, while officials around Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy estimate that Russia doesn’t have enough resources to mount a serious offensive, according to officials familiar with the thinking in Kyiv. That’s left them to create a sense of panic, they said.

U.S. and other Western officials agree that Russia doesn’t have the capability to attack Kharkiv without a major replenishment of Russian troops, according to people familiar with the discussions.

While Russia may be short of the manpower needed for a decisive breakthrough in the war, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said it plans to form two new combined armies, 14 divisions and 16 brigades by the end of this year. So far, the military has been expanding its ranks by attracting recruits with the promise of generous pay and aims to enlist at least 250,000 more soldiers in 2024.

Ukraine’s capital for over a decade when the country was part of the Soviet Union, Kharkiv is a key target for Moscow. Putin’s military aims to create a buffer zone in the country’s east, an objective put forth last month by the Russian leader, who said he wanted to deter attacks on the Belgorod region across the border.

Russia has set its sights on Kharkiv since the invasion began — and Putin’s aim of subjugating Ukraine in its entirety has unlikely changed since then, western officials believe.

In the region around Kharkiv, the regional government has announced the evacuation of families with children from 47 locations close to the front line, Governor Oleh Syniehubov said on April 7, adding that the action accounted for more than 180 children.

The plight has also prompted greater calls for air-defense systems, to fill gaps in addition to Kyiv’s critical shortage of ammunition. The government has pleaded with allies for at least seven additional Patriot missile systems. Germany this week pledged one, as well as more IRIS-T and Skynex systems along with ammunition, Zelenskiy said on Saturday.

Ukraine has repeatedly urged its Western allies to accelerate the delivery of artillery shells, air-defense systems, and the accompanying ammunition. Some $60 billion in U.S. military aid has been held up in Congress for months, while European efforts to source artillery from around the world to supply Ukraine are ongoing.