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.
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."
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
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.
Vsevolod Kozhemyako commands the 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.