Kharkiv | The centre of counter-offensive

Ukrainian troops have regained swathes of territories in the country’s northeast 

Ukrainian troops have regained swathes of territories in the country’s northeast 

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, lies just 30 km south of the Russian border. This predominantly Russian speaking former capital of Soviet Ukraine was one of the early targets of the Russian invasion that started on February 24. Russian troops made quick advances towards the gates of the city in the early days of the war but were stopped by Ukrainian resistance. Having failed to take the city, the Russians then tried to encircle it and continued to shell the defensive lines. But by May, when their main battlefront focus shifted towards 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 cities such as Izium and Kupiansk that served as logistical hubs for Russia’s operations in the east. Not any more.

Last week, Russian troops were pushed back from much of the Oblast by a lightning Ukrainian counter-offensive. Izium and Kupiansk are now back in the hands of Ukraine. Russia has confirmed the retreat, saying its troops were pulled back for “regrouping”. But Ukraine’s quick advances have clearly exposed the weak links in Russia’s defence of the territories it captured during the seven-month-long conflict.

Kharkiv is no stranger to conflicts. 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 restored their control over the whole of Ukraine. Kharkiv eventually became the capital of Soviet Ukraine. The Nazis took the city in October 1941. The almost three-year-long Nazi occupation was one of the most brutal phases of 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 communists partisans and Ukrainian nationalists. Tens of thousands were killed some 60,000 were sent to Germany for slave labour.

Kharkiv | The centre of counter-offensive

Police and experts work at a place of mass burial during an exhumation in the town of Izium, recently liberated by Ukrainian Armed Forces, in Kharkiv region on September 17.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

The Red Army, which had to withdraw from Kharkiv to the Izium area came under further attack and suffered another setback, like the Russians did in Izium last week. Two Soviet counter-offensives (first n May 1942 and then in February 1943) were unsuccessful. Finally, in a pre-winter offensive of August 1943, the Red Army broke through the defence lines of the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf in Kharkiv, liberating the city and forcing the Nazis to retreat behind the Dnieper River. The Battle of Kiev would follow quickly.

The Russian link

After Ukraine became independent following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kharkiv emerged as one of the busiest and most dynamic cities of the new republic in which Russian and Ukrainian ethnicities as well as a small Jewish minority co-existed. Given its territorial proximity to and deep cultural links with Russia, pro-Russian sentiments also remained strong in Kharkiv.

When Ukraine’s elected government of Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by the West-backed Euromaidan protests in 2014, Kharkiv saw several pro-Russian protests. When Russia annexed Crimea through a referendum and a separatist civil war broke out in the neighbouring Donbas region in the same year, Kharkiv also witnessed the insurrection of small but significant separatist forces who briefly took over state administration buildings. But unlike in Donetsk and Luhansk where the separatists, backed by Moscow, declared their own republics, in Kharkiv, the protesters were expelled from state buildings and the unrest was crushed. The crisis, however, has never been over.

After the war broke out, Russia has made it clear that it wanted to take the city. Even after their troops failed to take Kharkiv, Russian Generals have said they wanted to “liberate” the whole of Ukraine’s east and south, stretching from Kharkiv in the northeast to Odesa in the south. But Russia’s accomplishments in the seven months war were limited and earlier this month, they suffered their first major battlefield setback in the Kharkiv Oblast. As of now Ukraine has outsmarted the Russians in Kharkiv. They not only resisted the Russian attempts to take the city, but also pushed them out of the Oblast. Immediately after their counteroffensive gains, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Izium, which was the forward base of the Soviet Red Army during its attempts to retake Kharkiv from the Nazis, signalling that Ukraine’s hold over the city was tight.

But the question is whether the Russian withdrawal was a tactical retreat, like in 1941, for regrouping 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, everything is a possibility.

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