Kharkiv Got Some Breathing Space, but Still Doesn’t Breathe Easily

KHARKIV, Ukraine — The trenchworks along the northern edge of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, have begun to erode and fill with refuse, and the soldiers who used them to defend the city from the Russian onslaught have now departed to other fronts. Today, the fortifications are manned only by mannequins in military uniforms, including one, perhaps too optimistically, wearing a blue United Nations peacekeeping helmet.

All around, the blackened and pockmarked high-rise apartment buildings testify to the ferocity of the fighting that occurred here in Ukraine’s northeast in the early months of the war. But there is a stillness now, and residents are not quite sure how to interpret it.

Ukrainian forces expelled the Russian military from almost the whole region in a blitz offensive in September that took much of the world by surprise. Not only did it inject new vigor into the Ukrainian war effort, but it also gave Kharkiv some breathing space.

But the Ukrainians could push their enemies only so far. The border is about 25 miles from the city center, well within range of many Russian weapons.

Kateryna Vnukova, 19, an economics student in Kharkiv, said that from her 12th-floor apartment in the city center, she can sometimes see shelling off in the distance.

“I think now it’s all calm and quiet in Kharkiv, but it’s not calm and quiet,” said Ms. Vnukova, who was out for a twilight walk last weekend, but was trying to get home before sundown. “Normally when it gets dark, the devils come out, the ones there, over the border.”

Now there are signs that Russian forces are regrouping for a possible new offensive that could once again threaten the city. On Monday, Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, told a Ukrainian news outlet that а Russian tank division that had been deployed in Belarus had been diverted, possibly as part of a buildup of forces that could once again push into the Kharkiv region.

As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches its first anniversary, Kharkiv has become a showcase of Ukrainian military success, but also of its limitations. For the past four months, residents have slowly trickled back into the city; power, heat and gas have been restored to most dwellings; there is traffic in the streets and there are patrons in the restaurants and cafes, though many of their windows remain broken and boarded up.

Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, boasted that the city population had doubled since the first months of the war to about 1.1 million people (from a prewar population of 1.4 million) and that construction was underway to repair some of the 4,500 homes severely damaged in Russia’s failed effort to take the city. Though mindful that the fighting is far from over, the mayor is working with the acclaimed architect Norman Foster on a postwar development plan.

“We have to return Kharkiv residents to the city, but they can’t come back and find themselves in a broken shell,” he said. “The general plan for the development of London in 1943 was done under bombardment by the Fascists.”

But his development plan does not envision a speedy end to the conflict, or a total respite for Kharkiv. Among its provisions is a requirement that all newly built apartment blocks include underground parking lots that can double as bomb shelters.

While it is quieter in Kharkiv than it has ever been since the invasion began, to residents, the war does not seem all that far away. The air-raid sirens sound constantly, and Ukrainian fighter jets roar through the air on patrol. On a recent night, several burly men in camouflage uniforms and balaclavas entered an upscale Japanese restaurant to hand out draft notices to Ukrainian men, sending the waiters into hiding.

Last weekend, a contingent of Ukrainian troops from the Kharkiv region was taking advantage of the relative quiet to hone their rifle skills and their combat maneuvers in a wooded training ground just outside of town.

“We have some time, and we’re not going to waste it,” said their instructor, a 22-year-old lieutenant with the call sign Clover.

Russian artillery and rockets pound outlying villages in the region, and heavier missiles regularly hit the city center as Russian forces continue to target critical infrastructure like power plants.

An enormous thermal power plant has been attacked several times, including with an Iranian-made Shahed explosive drone. The attacks have blown a gigantic hole through the roof, broken all of the windows, and knocked out heating to the city for several days. Inside, workers keep equipment from freezing with large, gas-fed fire pits and plastic tarps to divide the huge boiler room into more easily warmed sections. The plant’s main boiler remains mangled and out of commission, but workers have managed to keep the plant churning out heat with auxiliary boilers.

No workers have been killed in the strikes.

“Thankfully, God is protecting us,” said Yevhen Kaurkin, the plant’s technical director.

The war is closer still in the northern neighborhood of Saltivka, which was ravaged by the fighting and remains a difficult place to live despite efforts to improve conditions. On a recent day, city workers in fluorescent green vests were raking leaves in front of a bombed-out building that looked like a wobbly tower of Jenga blocks.

Because so many people have been killed while waiting at bus stops, the city has installed fortified concrete shelters designed to protect people from shelling. Each has a monitor inside showing a live feed of the street so that people can know when the bus arrives.

During the worst of the fighting, hundreds of people sheltered in the musky basement of Kharkiv Municipal Gymnasium No. 172. Though no one now shelters there full time, hundreds still come back daily for warm meals prepared in the school’s kitchen.

The school’s director, Oleksandra Utkina, who also teaches mathematics, said she was excited for the day when children could return, but acknowledged that would not happen anytime soon.

“We need for them to stop shooting first,” she said.

Nearby, at a large army tent set up amid burned-out apartment blocks, a few locals were warming themselves and watching a soccer game on a large flat-screen television. Svitlana Kaminska, 62, was heating her dinner in a microwave. Though most residents of Saltivka left the neighborhood during the most intense fighting, Ms. Kaminska stayed, sheltering in her windowless corridor as rockets hit her apartment building again and again. In the entire building, she is the only one who remained.

Just to get to her front door, she has to scramble over mounds of debris and avoid falling into a large hole in the sidewalk where a shell landed in August. Some of the apartments in her building have been gutted by fire, and none have windows. Successive blast waves have knocked in some of the interior walls and punched out the steel frames of the elevator doors.

Ms. Kaminska’s existence is grim. She has rigged up a small space heater and a lamp to a thin white extension cord plugged into the only working plug in the building, at the bottom of the stairs, and has managed to heat her home to a few degrees above freezing. Only the audio on her television is working.

But these discomforts do not bother her much, she said.

“For me, the most frightening thing is not the cold or the fact that I’m alone here, but heaven forbid the possibility of another attack,” she said. “Doesn’t anyone have influence over this Russia, to quiet them down a little?”

Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.

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