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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Kharkiv Revisited: Inside Russia's New Assault On The "Hero City" Of Ukraine

The nation's second-largest city, Kharkiv was quiet for weeks after Ukrainian forces took control. But now it is again under attack as Russia pushes to capture the city that's considered the "gateway" to Ukraine. Die Welt reports from the frontline.

Damages due to Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine​

Damages due to Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine

Alfred Hackensberger

KHARKIV — "Come, I want to show you something," Denys Vezenych says, opening the door of his dental office.

The 40-year-old begins to tell the story in the waiting room: "It was April 16 when the Russian artillery shell hit. The windowpanes were broken, the walls had holes everywhere and the roof was destroyed. But I renovated everything."

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The repairs cost him several thousand euros. "You have to think positively, because life goes on," he explains with a smile. But this attitude is not so present generally in Saltivka, a neighborhood in northeastern Kharkiv. The dental practice may be like new, but the rest of this area in the northeastern Ukrainian city is completely destroyed.

The Russian army has done a great job in its three-month offensive on Ukraine's second largest metropolis. Countless flats have been burned out, the facades of houses have been shot to pieces, entire shopping centers have been bombed. Debris still lie in the streets everywhere.

At the end of May, however, the residents suddenly found new hope. The Ukrainian army had pushed back the Russian invaders. The continuous bombardment was reduced to a few sporadic attacks. A bit of normality returned. Supermarkets, restaurants, cafes and businesses reopened.

Defending the strategy "gateway" to Ukraine

Vezenych also believed he could treat his patients again. But the peaceful life now seems to be over again after a month. New Russian missiles are hitting Saltivka and many other districts of Kharkiv every day.

The medic says he doesn't want to give up. "You have to send a signal that things will continue." In the end, he is not confident. Vezenych has not completely repaired the annex to his practice. "You just never know," he says with a depressed expression.

For the past two weeks, the Russian army has been stepping up the pressure on Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million. It's not being done through missile attacks alone. Infantry is also trying to break through Ukrainian defenses on the ground.

In Pytomnyk, which is about 15 kilometers north of Kharkiv, one attack was particularly violent, says General Serhiy Melnyk. He is responsible for the defense of the Kharkiv region. "However, we were able to push the Russians back again." He is convinced that the Russian army will launch a second major attack.

"Kharkiv is too strategically important, it's the gateway to Ukraine," he says in a secret warehouse in front of a Russian armored vehicle. His battalion captured it outside Saltivka. If Kharkiv were actually to fall, the way for Russian troops to Kyiv and the Donbas would be clear. "Of course, we won't allow that under any circumstances," says Melnyk. He smiles smugly and adjusts his bulletproof vest.

A heavy toll

Kharkiv is considered the "Hero City of Ukraine." By Feb. 27, the third day of the invasion, Russian tanks had already rolled through the city's historic center. At that time, Moscow had reported the capture of the politically and economically important metropolis. But then, things turned out quite differently. Ukraine repelled Russian troops and they had to retreat for three months.

However, Kharkiv paid a high price for the temporary victory. 621 residents lost their lives and more than 1,200 people were injured. At least 70 historically valuable buildings are damaged or destroyed. The city center is an imposing collection of Art Nouveau architecture, multi-story brick houses from the 19th century and monstrous buildings from the Soviet era.

On this Saturday morning, Brigadier General Melnyk first checks a command post in Kharkiv before continuing to the front lines for inspection. It is a former Soviet nuclear bunker several stories deep in a secret location. In the control room with numerous screens, the senior officer reports on the situation. Every 30 minutes contact is made here with the positions in the field. Everything is going as planned.

Kharkiv paid a high price for the temporary victory.

Only the teams controlling drones are having problems. "The Russians are jamming the signals and contact with some drones has been lost," explains General Melnyk. An encrypted message goes out: "Change position to avoid Russian signal jamming and then report back. Take care of yourselves and your comrades!”

Aftermath of a rocket attack on the Mashhidropryvid plant by the Russian troops in Kharkiv

Aftermath of a rocket attack on the Mashhidropryvid plant by the Russian troops in Kharkiv

Vyacheslav Madiyevskyi/Ukrinform/ZUMA

Asking for help for the first time

The general's next stop is Derhachi. The small town, 12 kilometers north of Kharkiv, has also been under fire for days. "Every day we distribute groceries and food to civilians who don't want to be evacuated," informs Melnyk in front of the wrought-iron entrance gate to the church. “Today we are in Derhachi for this purpose.” The mass has just ended. The priest receives the general and his accompanying soldiers in front of the altar. Each is greeted with three kisses on the cheek. Then the Father pronounces his blessing on the Ukraine fighters.

Most of the people who came to the service are elderly and seek God's help. They cross themselves in front of each icon before leaving the church. A satisfied smile comes over their faces as they are handed packages of rice, chicken and even a carton of cigarettes. Afterwards, they are served potato soup. It is served with a ladle from a large white pot into plastic plates. Many of the old people seem to be very hungry already in the early morning. They slurp down the hot soup.

"It is very difficult to accept this help," says Natalia Kunsinzova. You can tell from the 68-year-old woman with a light-blue headscarf that she really doesn't feel comfortable with it. She has never had to ask for help in her life, she stresses. But now she has no choice.

She then says that she was born in a Soviet prison in Siberia. As a Lithuanian, her father was sentenced to 15 years in a prison camp by the Soviet regime. "That's where he met my Russian mother," she says, smiling. "See, we were a cosmopolitan family."

Russian artillery at any moment

People are also hungry in the city of Kharkiv. Everywhere relief supplies are distributed, you see long lines. Everything is available in the supermarkets. But many people can no longer afford to buy even the most necessary things. There is hardly any work. Savings are exhausted after four months of war.

Then the journey continues at breakneck speed on deserted roads, dotted with mortar and rocket impacts. The destination is the hard-hit region of Ruska Losowa. Hidden under trees, we await the arrival of the commander of an outpost. It is Vsevolod Kozhemyako, one of the richest men in Ukraine, who arrives after a few minutes in combat uniform with helmet, bulletproof vest and rifle in hand.

He is the founder and CEO of Agrotrade Group, which processes and exports 1.2 million tons of grain annually. "Get in," he says in a commanding tone as he opens the side door of his van. Kozhemyako commands the Khartia Battalion. Along with other donors, he funds training, weapons and vehicles for the troops.

After ten minutes of driving, we reach a village whose houses have been destroyed down to the foundation walls. "Get out of here, we have to keep moving, the Russian artillery will fire at any moment," Kozhemyako shouts. He heads for the trenches his battalion has dug. Shortly thereafter, the sound of a Russian mortar being fired is heard.

It falls about two hundred meters away. Dense white smoke rises into the sky. In the meantime, General Melnyk has also joined. "Fuck Russia," he calls out, laughing after the mortar attack, and shows the middle finger.

\u200bVsevolod Kozhemyako commands the Khartia Battalion

Vsevolod Kozhemyako commands the Khartia Battalion


Khartia Battalion

The command post of the Khartia Battalion is hidden under trees. About a kilometer from here begins a stretch of forest, a so-called gray zone, which is fought over. The Russians are about two kilometers away. The command post is a lonely country house. In the basement is the unit's operations room.

We are fighting for our country, for our families and for freedom.

Here, they keep records of the frequency of Russian artillery and the flight times of enemy drones. "Then we know when we can move relatively freely," Kozhemyako says. His battalion has also placed cameras in the village to detect surprise movements by the Russians. On the wall in the control room are pictures of the Russian commanders and information about their units, which are faced here on the front lines. "After all, we need to know who we're dealing with," Kozhemyako clarifies.

Upstairs on the ground floor are two dormitories for the soldiers. A small kitchen is set up in the entrance area of the country house. There is hot tea. A man keeps an eye on the open door, as if Russian soldiers could appear at any time.

"Don't stand in front of the open door," Kozhemyako orders. "An artillery grenade can explode at any time." The Ukrainian grain mogul does not want to talk about how many of his soldiers he has already lost. "I'm not telling you the truth anyway," he says with a serious expression on his face and then suddenly laughs.

The entrepreneur, who could be comfortably seated in one of his mansions, has chosen to fight. "We are fighting for our country, for our families and for freedom," he says. "There is no alternative." Russian gunfire can be heard again in the background. Kozhemyako listens intently, waiting for the impact of the explosion. "Now we can go," he says and hurries ahead to the car, sheltered under trees.

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Inside Putin's Deal For Iranian Drones

Outgunned by Ukraine's Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, Russia has reportedly started importing armed drones from Iran, which may have explained Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Tehran, which is looking to flex its muscles internationally. But it could prove to be a dangerous turning point in the war.

At an underground drone base, in an unknown location in Iran

Christine Kensche

The satellite images show a hangar. The rough outlines of two geometric shapes are visible — a triangle and an elongated object with wide wings. According to intelligence information from the United States, this is the Kashan airfield south of Tehran, where Iran is training its regional militias.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

The geometric objects are drones: the Shahed-191 and the Shahed-129, both considered capable of carrying weapons. Their name translates to martyr. According to U.S. information, the picture also shows a transport vehicle for visitors from Russia. If what the White House recently said is true, the "martyr" drones could soon be circling Ukraine, controlled remotely by Russian soldiers.

Tehran's drone army

According to national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Iran wants to deliver "several hundred" drones to Russia and train Russian soldiers on the devices. Training may have already begun, Sullivan said. In June, Russian delegations traveled to the Iranian airfield twice. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Tehran in person on Tuesday.

It's a turning point for Iran as an international arms dealer.

"This is a significant turning point for Iran as an international arms dealer," says Israeli drone expert Seth Frantzman, who has published a book on the subject (Drone Wars). So far, outside the circle of its allies in the region, Tehran has only sold its technology to Venezuela and built a drone factory in Tajikistan. "The deal with the world power Russia finally makes Iran an international player in the drone business, with its influence reaching as far as Europe."

In terms of technology and trade, the world's drone powers are the U.S., Israel, China and, by some margin, Turkey. Indeed, the Turkish-designed Bayraktar drones are deployed by Ukraine against Russia, which initially gave Kyiv important strategic successes.

There are two key reasons why Russia is now apparently buying from Iran: its own drones cannot keep up. And Iran's drones are technically less sophisticated than those of Western competitors. But they do the job – and are quicker and cheaper to make. Even Iran's nemesis Israel recognizes the powerful potential of Tehran's drone army.

"Iran has massively upgraded its drone program in recent years," says Frantzman. The Shiite regime introduces new types of drones almost every week. According to information from the Israeli army, Iran has a complete production chain, from missiles to navigation systems. The parts are often copied — for example, from U.S. drones that Iran shot down in the past. It now has a variety of different series and types — from unarmed reconnaissance devices to combat drones and those called kamikaze drones (small unmanned aerial vehicles with explosive charges that ram their target). The damage Iranian technology can do has been demonstrated by the regime's devastating attacks in recent years.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receiving Russian President Vladimir Putin in the presence of his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi (right) in Tehran

Iranian Supreme Leader's Office/ZUMA

Attacks by Iranian drones

Iran's arsenal of remotely piloted aircraft stretches from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to the Gulf and Yemen. The technology is used by Iranian allies — by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, by Yemen's Huthis against Saudi Arabia, by Shiite militias against the U.S. Army. Or, indeed, by Iran itself.

The "Pearl Harbor" of the drone war happened three years ago: Iran used drones and rockets to attack the Abqaiq refinery of the world's largest oil company Aramco in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi air defenses were powerless. The attack shut down Saudi Arabia's oil exports for several months. Global oil production collapsed by six percent.

Iranian drones were used in the last Gaza war.

Since then, Iran has systematically relied on weapons. Drones are said to be responsible for at least five attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq in May and June last year. Iranian drone technology also played a role in the last Gaza war. Hamas not only fired 4,000 rockets at Israel last May. It also deployed a new explosive-laden drone.

Last year, Iranian drone attacks claimed human lives for the first time: Kamikaze drones attacked the Mercer Street oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most strategically important choke points between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Two crew members died, including the captain. Then, in the spring, drones attacked tankers and Abu Dhabi airport. Three people lost their lives. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supplied with weapons and technology by Iran, said they were responsible for the attack on the U.A.E.

A military unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) launched from an Iranian navy vessel in the Indian ocean

Iranian Army Office/ZUMA

No war is won by drones alone

There is no precise information on exactly which drones Russia could acquire. The types shown by the U.S. on the satellite images are among Iran's most important reconnaissance and combat drones. The Shahed-129 is the country's oldest combat drone. It can stay in the air for up to 24 hours and can be armed with eight guided missiles. Also known as the Saegheh (Thunderbolt), the Shahed-191 is a combat drone whose specialty is great mobility. It can be mounted on the back of a truck and launched while the vehicle is in motion.

Kamikaze drones are easier and cheaper to produce.

This combat drone, which can be equipped with two remote-controlled anti-tank missiles, is therefore extremely flexible. However, it is doubtful that Iran can actually deliver hundreds of these types in a hurry. A deal with Russia is therefore likely to include kamikaze drones, which are easier and cheaper to produce.

If Russia were to use Iranian drones in the near future, it would not be a turning point in the Ukraine war, says expert Frantzman: "You don't win a war with drones." However, Russia could use them to damage Ukraine's strategic infrastructure comparatively cheaply, without having to put expensive war equipment at risk.

And another target could become the focus of Iranian drones — Western war equipment, such as the HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, which the U.S. supplied to Ukraine and which play a central role in defense against Russia.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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