On the front line: Inside the Ukrainian border city with strong ties to Russia

Kharkiv lies just 25 miles from the Russian border and many there have sympathies with their neighbouring ‘brothers’, World Affairs Editor Kim Sengupta reports from inside the city

Wednesday 26 January 2022 17:51
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<p>Reservists of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces listen to instructions during military exercises at a training ground outside Kharkiv</p>

Reservists of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces listen to instructions during military exercises at a training ground outside Kharkiv

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“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 who are trying to turn us into enemies and start a bloodbath,” declared an angry Kiril Semenov.

As the diplomatic options to prevent a new war in Europe appear to fade away, Ukrainians are preparing for what they fear are dark and violent days ahead. Thousands have rushed to join volunteer groups vowing to resist an invasion ordered by Vladimir Putin, one they believe may be imminent.

But there are others who hold that a conflict is being created by the behaviour of the government in Kiev, encouraged by the west, goading Moscow into a war which will end in disaster for Ukraine.

It is not a popular view in much of the country which sees a force of more than 100,000 Russian troops massed at the border and the Kremlin going through the motions of talking to the west before launching an offensive.

But, standing in Freedom Square in Kharkiv, Mr Semenov was expressing views which are held, to lesser and greater extent, by a sizeable number of the Russian-speaking population in this city.

“This war is being brought about by the Americans and Nato telling the people in Kiev not to compromise, using Ukraine again as their proxy,” held the 48-year-old electrical engineer. “And if the fighting does start, will Nato come here to fight the Russians? Of course not, they have already said they would not.”

Kharkiv is just 25 miles from the Russian border and 150 miles from Donetsk and Luhansk. Some of the vicious strife that led to those two cities becoming separatist republics eight years ago was also present here.

Around 74 per cent of Kharkiv’s 1.4 million population are Russian speakers. Last week Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, claimed that Moscow may try to seize the city under the pretext of “protecting” these people – an act which “will be the beginning of a large-scale war”.

Kharkiv is also the home base of Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian MP who was named by the British government as Putin’s chosen leader of a puppet regime following invasion and occupation.

That claim, however, has been met with wide scepticism. Mr Murayev himself has threatened to take legal action against the UK government and has invited it to show evidence supporting the allegation.

The Russian links to the city, however, have been there for a long time.

Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow President whose overthrow in the Maidan protests led to the 2014 conflict, and the dismemberment of Ukraine, briefly planned to set up a base in Kharkiv after fleeing the capital. But he soon left for Crimea and then disappeared into exile in southern Russia.

“There was a lot of trouble here in 2014 you may remember, like the cities in the Donbass. That calmed down a bit, but there is a lot of tension now with talk of war. And, all the time, there’s all this unnecessary divisive stuff,” said Mr Semenov, waving at a forces recruiting tent with photographs and inspiring quotes from Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, and caricatures of Putin and Russian leaders from Soviet times.

As Mr Semenov spoke, a woman trudging through the snow, stopped to have her say: “They try to create an impression that Kharkiv is an anti-Russian city, we are not. The Russians are our brothers and will never do us harm, even less attack us. All this is propaganda from the US and Nato. Ukraine should be lucky to have a leader like Putin.” She refused to give her name.

Ukrainian serviceman Anastasia (21) rests in a shelter on a front line near the Russian border

Mikhail Petrovich Godunov, director of the Kharkiv Society of Eastern Slavs, an association of Russian speakers, was of the view that “Zelensky created a lot of tension by what he said, it led to people becoming afraid about the future.

“There has been a lot Russophobia and xenophobia in the last two months. There are things like the language laws under which a shop assistant must first speak to a customer in Ukrainian rather than Russian, why create such divisions?”

Mr Godunov, a retired lawyer, does not believe there will be war.

“I do not think there will be an invasion. Putin is a smart man: he is not going to do something so risky. They are talking about 100,000 troops across the border from here, but you’d need a million troops to invade Ukraine.

“The problems of civilians in the in the east of the country are not being addressed,” he said. “These people in the grayzones (front lines) and the republics ( Donetsk and Luhansk) cannot live normal lives, even movement is difficult because of checkpoints, there’s resentment because of this... But as for Kharkiv, there shouldn’t be any trouble here, there would be no violence.”

Nicolai, a 26-year-old in the construction business, and a Russian speaker, was not so sure.

“There are a lot of people who are fed up with the way they are treating Russian culture here. Don’t forget this used to be the capital of Ukraine once, we are aware of our identity.”

Nicolai, who did not want his family name made public, said he took part in the confrontation in 2014 “with the fascists” and has no regret for doing so. “I am older now with a family and don’t want to get into any trouble, but I would not like any provocation to start a war with Russia,” he said.

The city’s mayor, Igor Terekhov, insists everything is under control.

“I want to assure everyone that we are ready to give a firm rebuff to a potential invader, we have all the forces to defend Kharkiv,” he said in a public message, asking for “calmness”.

Not everyone can stay calm. Viktoria Palmarchuk’s family fled from Crimea after it was annexed by Russia in 2014 and she is very familiar, she says, with the feelings of fear which lead to people uprooting themselves.

“I know the situation is not the same here as it was in Crimea. But I also remember how quickly things changed there for all of us. Everything suddenly became polarised and things changed for those who were not loyal to Russia, I remember how much more Russian our neighbours suddenly became and we became outsiders,” said Ms Palmarchuk.

“It’s a precaution really, but we are thinking about moving to Kiev or maybe Lviv until this situation is resolved. Both my husband and I work in IT, and we can work from anywhere, that helps. But we can’t help worrying.”

Kharkiv is an industrial city which has been home to aircraft, tank and tractor factories. It has in recent years, however, become a technology hub, with more than 50,000 people employed in IT, with ambitions to lead the region into becoming Ukraine’s Silicon Valley.

“It is strange to think that here we are in an advanced, sophisticated sector and at the same time we have to face something as primitive as war,” reflected Andryi Yurchenko.

Sitting at a bar in the city centre, the 26-year-old software engineer said he would have to watch his drinking because he had started doing extra training classes in the government’s volunteer force.

“I do not think war is a logical way of solving problems. But we have a man in Moscow, Mr Putin, who is not a very logical person, and what he does affects all our lives. We don’t know what’s going to happen, this city is pretty mixed, let’s hope there are no divisions,” said Mr Yurchenko.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, centre, and EU foreign affairs high representative Josep Borrell fly to eastern Luhansk region from Kharkiv

At the snowy border post between Ukraine and Russia, two old friends were also hoping that the communities do not fracture. Sergei Gretsov, Russian, and Sergei Svetocech, Ukrainian, both 62, have known each other for 40 years ever since they met at college.

“We have been crossing the border to come over with our families, with all our other friends to eat, drink, go shopping without any problems”, said Mr Gretsov. “We’d like to think this would continue for our children, but we are concerned by all that’s happening.”

Mr Svetocech had no doubt that, left to themselves, the people of Kharkiv would not fall out with each other. But “there are politicians who are trying to use people turn them against each other” he said.

“I am sure there are some corrupt businesses mixed up in this as well – this mixture, politicians and business, make profit whenever there’s trouble.”

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