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

Second Russian invasion is worse than the first, Kharkiv region evacuees say

By Isabelle Khurshudyan and Serhii Korolchuk Washington Post

VOVCHANSK, Ukraine – A new Russian offensive into Ukraine’s Kharkiv region has forced more than 6,000 people to evacuate this small city since Friday, fearing for their lives and racing to escape a second occupation more than two years after Moscow’s troops first crossed the border with columns of tanks.

The wave of displaced people from Vovchansk, located just 5 miles from the Russian border, and surrounding settlements is reminiscent of those early days of the invasion in February 2022 – but this attack by Russia is even worse, the evacuees said.

Russian glide bombs weighing half a ton each have been dropped repeatedly from aircraft on Vovchansk and neighboring border towns for days. The sound of artillery shelling has been constant. Self-destructing drones can be heard buzzing overhead before crashing into vehicles. So much is on fire – the surrounding forest, cars, apartment buildings – that the heavy smoke makes it hard to breathe.

With three small plastic bags of belongings and her walking cane, Kateryna Yefemets stood on Monday morning outside the only home she has known, ready to leave it for good. The whistling of incoming artillery didn’t move her as she waited desperately for a ride out.

Yefemets had spent all of her 70 years here, but Vovchansk was nearly deserted after three days of Russian bombing. A prewar population of more than 17,000 has been reduced to just several hundred.

Even elderly residents who previously vowed to never leave, saying they had nowhere to go, have now opted to flee, unable to bear the total destruction closing in on them.

“Do you think they need these villages?” Valentina Ilyenko, 73, said of the Russians. “There’s nothing left. They’re going to keep going. They’re just clearing us all out of there for whatever they’re planning next.”

As a local policeman helping to evacuate the last remaining residents in Vovchansk ushered Yefemets into his car, he stopped and pointed up at the Russian drone hovering overhead. Small-arms fire could be heard in the distance.

Russian soldiers had reached the northern edges of the city, and the Ukrainian military says it has sent reinforcements to repel the assault.

Yefemets left behind her dog, which peeked its head under the locked green gate of her home as she walked away. Another man evacuating the city threw just a coat on his immobile father and carried him out to a waiting car.

“I was born there, baptized there and everything,” Yefemets said. “I want to cry. My soul hurts.”

The purpose of the Russian offensive was not immediately clear, but Ukrainian and Western officials say Moscow could be trying to expand a buffer zone to roughly 6 miles deep into Ukraine to limit Kyiv’s ability to shell Russian villages across the border.

The Kharkiv region lies adjacent to Russia’s Belgorod region, which has come under repeated attacks – one of the few areas in Russia where residents feel the persistent, direct impact of a war that has destroyed Ukrainian cities and displaced millions of Ukrainians.

Many evacuees said they feared that Russia could be making a second attempt at reaching the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest, which is located just 25 miles from the Russian border.

Kharkiv has been the target of frequent missile attacks for two years, but a sweeping Ukrainian counteroffensive in September 2022 pushed the invading forces out of most of the northeast region, including many of the border towns where Russia is gaining ground anew.

With every Russian advance, the risk grows that Kharkiv city again will be within Russian artillery range.

“The enemy is coming at us from the north and is trying to push further into our territories,” the Kharkiv region’s governor, Oleh Syniehubov, said at a news conference Monday.

The Russians are “trying to occupy the city of Vovchansk and take control over it, but our military is still restraining them there and the fighting is taking place in absolutely every direction,” Syniehubov added.

U.S. officials are watching the Russian push with concern but do not believe the Ukrainians are on the verge of a significant territorial loss.

The American officials said that Russia’s decision to strike now was likely motivated by the knowledge that Ukraine is rapidly rearming, thanks to the new funding recently approved by Congress after a more than six month delay – meaning Kyiv will be appreciably stronger within weeks.

Russia may be probing to see how far it can advance in the meantime, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about assessments of the battlefield that have not been disclosed to the public.

Though Western and Ukrainian officials warned for months that Moscow might mount an offensive in the Kharkiv region, some military officials and opposition politicians have observed on social media that Ukraine did not prepare sufficient defenses at the border, allowing Russia to advance quickly into several villages. The Ukrainian commander responsible for the northeast front was dismissed on Monday.

Ukraine’s outnumbered forces were stretched thin across a front line that stretches 600 miles. Military personnel in the field have complained of troop shortages for months.

Kyiv is preparing to mobilize more troops, but it could take months to train them and get them to the front. Those who have been fighting for more than two years without a break are experiencing extreme fatigue amid the intensified Russian attacks.

In addition to losses in Kharkiv, Ukraine has been ceding ground in the Donetsk region, in the embattled town of Chasiv Yar and around Avdiivka, a city Russia captured in February.

And Ukraine’s forces are largely defenseless against Russia’s increased use of glide bombs, primitive Soviet-era weapons that pound Kyiv’s military positions and can level entire civilian buildings.

Ukrainian officials and soldiers have pleaded for modern fighter jets, such as the U.S.-designed F-16, which is expected to arrive in Ukraine later this year. The planes would allow Ukraine to threaten to shoot down encroaching Russian bombers.

“As soon as we have normal aviation, then they can shoot down the planes in the air, and they won’t be using the bombs anymore,” said a commander of an air-defense unit in the Kharkiv region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

“Aviation and air defense – that’s what we need and then they will no longer have the physical possibility of using the [glide bombs],” this commander said. “It’s the enemy’s main ammunition now. And it’s such a simple request, damn it.”

The commander said that near the Kharkiv border, Russian planes have been making three to four sorties per day to drop the bombs.

“It’s just pure hell there,” said Anastasia Kondratenko, 26.

Like other evacuees, Kondratenko had been brought to a center in Kharkiv city to register as an internally displaced person. People were handed pillows and mats and offered to sleep in a dormitory if they had nowhere else to go. A man smoking a cigarette while holding his black cat jumped at the sound of a car door closing, spooked by the noise after enduring so many explosions.

Lubov and Nikolay Bondarenko, a married couple in their 70s, took only their 8-year-old parakeet, Kesha, with them when they left Vovchansk. They lived through Russia’s first occupation and said they didn’t think they’d survive this one.

“We had no more patience, we were dodging explosions,” Lubov said. “We spent last night in the stairwell and didn’t sleep all night. We waited, waited, waited, and then the end came. We had to leave.”

On Monday morning, Oleksii Kharkivskyi, head of patrol police in Vovchansk, drove through the city looking for the few remaining people who wanted to be evacuated. He stopped at one apartment block. A bomb had fallen in front of it, leaving scorched earth and a large crater in the ground. He entered the yard and called out, “People, come out, we’re evacuating!”

The brick building was tainted with black burn marks. The only sound in response was blinds smacking against blown-out windows and artillery fire in the distance.

“There’s no one left here,” he said, returning to his car.