Kharkiv | The center of the counter-offensive

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Ukrainian troops have regained whole swathes of territory in the northeast of the country

Ukrainian troops have regained whole swathes of territory in the northeast of the country

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, lies just 30 km south of the Russian border. This former capital of Soviet Ukraine, which is predominantly Russian-speaking, was one of the first targets of the Russian invasion which began on February 24. Russian troops made rapid advances towards the city gates early in the war, but were halted by Ukrainian resistance. Having failed to take the city, the Russians then attempted to encircle it and continued to bombard the defensive lines. But in May, when their main focus on the battlefront shifted to Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, Russian troops withdrew from the outskirts of Kharkiv city, but continued to hold much of Kharkiv Oblast, including small but strategically important towns such as Izium and Kupiansk which served as logistics centers for Russian operations in the east. Not anymore.

Last week, Russian troops were pushed back from much of the oblast by a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive. Izium and Kupiansk are now in Ukrainian hands. Russia confirmed the withdrawal, saying its troops had been withdrawn for “regrouping”. But Ukraine’s rapid progress has made clear the weak links in Russia’s defense of the territories it captured during the seven-month conflict.

Kharkiv is no stranger to conflict. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, Kharkiv was briefly part of the German-occupied anti-communist Ukrainian state. But after the German withdrawal and the defeat of the Whites (anti-communist forces), the Bolsheviks reestablished their control over the whole of Ukraine. Kharkiv eventually became the capital of Soviet Ukraine. The Nazis took the city in October 1941. The nearly three-year Nazi occupation was one of the most brutal phases in Kharkiv’s modern history. The Nazi occupiers and their local collaborators massacred some 15,000 Jews, more than 10% of the city’s pre-war Jewish population. They also turned against Communist partisans and Ukrainian nationalists. Tens of thousands of people were killed, some 60,000 were sent to Germany for slave labor.

Police and experts work on a mass burial site during an exhumation in the town of Izium, recently liberated by Ukrainian armed forces, in the Kharkiv region on September 17.

Police and experts work on a mass burial site during an exhumation in the town of Izium, recently liberated by Ukrainian armed forces, in the Kharkiv region on September 17. | photo credit: Reuters

The Red Army, which had to retreat from Kharkiv to the Izium region, was attacked again and suffered another setback, as the Russians did in Izium last week. Two Soviet counter-offensives (first in May 1942 and then in February 1943) failed. Finally, in a pre-winter offensive of August 1943, the Red Army broke through the defense lines of the 4th Panzer Army and Kempf Army Detachment in Kharkiv, liberating the city and forcing the Nazis to retreat behind the Dnieper. The Battle of kyiv would follow quickly.

The Russian Link

After Ukrainian independence following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kharkiv became one of the liveliest and most dynamic cities of the new republic in which Russian and Ukrainian ethnicities coexisted as well only a small Jewish minority. Given its territorial proximity and deep cultural ties to Russia, pro-Russian sentiments also remained strong in Kharkiv.

When the elected Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by Western-backed Euromaidan protests in 2014, Kharkiv saw several pro-Russian protests. When Russia annexed Crimea by referendum and a separatist civil war broke out in the neighboring region of Donbass in the same year, Kharkiv also witnessed the insurgency of small but significant separatist forces which briefly took control of the state administration buildings. But unlike Donetsk and Luhansk where separatists, backed by Moscow, have declared their own republics, in Kharkiv protesters have been forced out of state buildings and the unrest has been crushed. The crisis, however, was never over.

After the outbreak of war, Russia made it clear that it wanted to take the city. Even after their troops failed to take Kharkiv, Russian generals said they wanted to ‘liberate’ all of eastern and southern Ukraine, stretching from Kharkiv to the northeast in Odessa to the south. But Russia’s achievements in the seven-month war have been limited and earlier this month they suffered their first major battlefield setback in Kharkiv Oblast. From now on, Ukraine has outplayed the Russians in Kharkiv. They not only resisted Russian attempts to take the city, but also drove them out of the oblast. Immediately after their counter-offensive gains, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Izium, which was the forward base of the Soviet Red Army during its attempts to retake Kharkiv from the Nazis, reporting that the grip of the Ukraine on the city was narrow.

But the question is whether the Russian withdrawal was a tactical retreat, as in 1941, to regroup and counterattack or whether Ukraine would be able to consolidate its gains in the recaptured territories and keep the Russians at bay. As long as the war continues, anything is possible.

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