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Military exercises in the Kharkiv region. Ukraine, December 20, 2021.
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‘No one is going to hand over Ukraine’ A local journalist reports on the hopes and fears of Kharkiv residents amid the looming threat of a Russian invasion

Source: Meduza
Military exercises in the Kharkiv region. Ukraine, December 20, 2021.
Military exercises in the Kharkiv region. Ukraine, December 20, 2021.
Ukrainian Armed Forces / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The Ukrainian city of Kharkiv is located just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border with Russia. In 2014, it was among the main centers of a bitter standoff between supporters and opponents of the Maidan Revolution. Eight years later — against the backdrop of a Russian troop buildup that has provoked international fears of a military escalation — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky speculated that Moscow may try to “occupy” Kharkiv. In a dispatch from the city, local journalist Olga Antonova reports on how Kharkiv’s inhabitants are responding to the prospect of an all-out war with Russia.

Constitution Square is the center of Kharkiv. Throngs of people emerge from the overcrowded subway, spreading out towards offices and shopping centers. At one of the many coffee shops, I strike up a conversation with the barista. Olga is 20 years old, a part-time student at Karazin University, who is working to pay for her studies. As she fiddles with the coffee machine, I ask her what she thinks about the possibility of Russian troops invading Kharkiv. Olga shrugs in response: “I don’t know why everyone is panicking. I was 12 years old when all of this started, I was still in grade school.”

Olga remembers 2014. Back then, there were regular clashes in Kharkiv between Euromaidan supporters and pro-Russian forces. Shortly thereafter, the city suffered a series of terrorist attacks, one of which killed nine people. 

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In March 2014, supporters of the so-called “Kharkiv People’s Republic” even managed to seize the regional administration building for a short period of time. “At first it was scary, my school [was] right next to the administration, we all saw it: the rallies, how they stormed the administration, how they hung the Russian flag on it, how the streets were blocked. The military parked their vehicles in our schoolyard,” Olga recalls. “And then we got used to it. Eight years have gone by, Russia hasn’t gone anywhere, but Kharkiv is still Ukraine. I hope it stays that way.” 

Olga says if Russia invades she “definitely won’t run.” “I’ll send my mom and grandmother somewhere — to Kyiv, probably, my friends there will take them in. But I myself won’t leave. If I need to, I’ll go fight.”

That said, Olga immediately underscores that she doesn’t believe there will be a war with Russia — after all, Putin “isn’t a total fool, he understands that no one is going to hand over Ukraine to him.”

Go-bags and cigarettes

Tensions around Ukraine have been escalating since the fall of 2021, when Western media reported that Russian military forces were being pulled to the border. The most recent transfer of Russian troops took place in late January, against the backdrop of joint drills with the Belarusian military. According to the U.S. State Department, there are now around 100,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. 

Russian officials maintain that there will be no invasion. However, United Russia has already formally asked Vladimir Putin to start supplying weapons to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” And NATO countries have sent additional forces to Eastern Europe. 

In an interview with The Washington Post on January 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speculated that in the event of an invasion Kharkiv “could be occupied” by Russia — under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population. This, he said, would “be the beginning of a large-scale war.” 

“If Russia decides to enhance their escalation, of course they are going to do this on those territories where historically there are people who used to have family links to Russia. Kharkiv, which is under Ukraine government control, could be occupied. Russia needs a pretext: They will say that they are protecting the Russian-speaking population. After the occupation and the annexation of Crimea, we understand that this is feasible and may happen. But I don’t know what they are going to do because these are big cities. Kharkiv has over 1 million citizens. It’s not going to be just an occupation; it’s going to be the beginning of a large-scale war,” Zelensky said. 

This was followed by reassuring statements from government and security officials: for example, the head of the Ukrainian Security Service’s Kharkiv branch stated that the city is prepared to repel any threat, “like never before in the last eight years.” After his Washington Post interview came out, Zelensky himself hastened to add that Russia wouldn’t be able to occupy Kharkiv. 

Nevertheless, his statement still provoked a low-level panic in the city. At one point, sugar and cereal stocks had noticeably thinned out on store shelves. Plans to leave the city became a point of discussion on social networks: those without cars of their own connected with car owners via special Facebook groups. Some wrote that they were already packing “go-bags” — many Kharkiv residents have had these ready since 2014 (go-bags usually contain the essentials: documents, medications, comfortable clothes, a day or two worth of groceries, cigarettes, and cash). 

Yulia selling cigarettes
Olga Antonova for Meduza

Yulia works in a subway underpass, selling cigarettes and other small goods, like chewing gum and chocolate bars. Asked by Meduza’s correspondent if demand for cigarettes has gone up, she laughs: “Are you panicking too? Are you going to stock up? Well, there were five or six people this week who took a couple cartons in case there’s war. But nothing much has changed, at first I packed a suitcase, but then I realized I have nowhere to run to anyway. We survived 2014 — we’ll survive this too.”

Saber-rattling 

Kharkiv residents who were still children when the conflict in the Donbas began take in what’s happening calmly. Slava, a graphic designer working for a large IT company, tells Meduza that he regards Zelensky’s claims about a possible invasion with skepticism: “We’ve always been under threat. But let’s discuss this logically. Yes, they write about an accumulation of troops. Well, so what? Another jumpscare from Putin, saber-rattling. Since last spring, the Russians around our borders have been either conducting drills or moving troops. I think it’s nothing more than intimidation. But if there’s a need, I will go fight.”

Larisa Olegovna is much older than Slava — she’s 80 years old; but she isn’t going anywhere either. In fact, she’s already preparing to fight back: “The Donbas is enough! I’ve already lived a long life and even if everything goes as the president said, I won’t run away. I won’t be able to shoot, but I still have the strength to be a partisan.”

Volunteers helping the Ukrainian army are also calm. There are hundreds of them in Kharkiv. They literally do everything — from delivering food to providing legal assistance to displaced people. “We’ve always been at the ready,” says Nastya, a volunteer. In the past, she used her station wagon to evacuate wounded soldiers from the front line in the Donbas, then she turned her efforts to helping internally displaced persons. 

“We just overdid it, apparently — we convinced both ourselves and [other] people that everything was alright. There were too few reminders that the war hadn’t gone away. Reports from the front are no longer on the front pages and are not the top stories in the news, fewer helicopters with the wounded fly to the hospital. Before, dozens of them hovered over the city,” Nastya explains. “People get used to everything, they forget very quickly, and this is dangerous. Therefore, a slight panic won’t hurt so that the people come to their senses a little, otherwise they’ll relax completely.” 

Oksana selling baked goods
Olga Antonova for Meduza

Oksana sells sweets at a market on the outskirts of the city. There’s always a line outside her kiosk. I also buy cookies and cakes from her a few times a month. Today is a weekday, but there are still people in front of me at the kiosk window. 

As she rearranges the boxes in the window, I ask Oksana about the mood among her customers. “I had a couple of psychos here. They bought ten kilograms of ‘Marias’,” she says, referring to a type of biscuit with a long shelf life. “I was surprised — they were such strong, grown men. I said: why do you need so much? And they told me: there’ll be a war soon, we need to stock up. Well, I did the sale, of course, but I didn’t really understand why they needed cookies. If need be, find weapons and sign up for the territorial defense.”

The “territorial defense” is a military reserve that Ukraine began actively building back in 2018. Anyone who wishes to enlist can do so. The requirements are simple: military experience isn’t important, so long as you’re between the ages of 18 and 60. The reservists regularly take part in exercises and undergo quasi-military training. On January 1, 2022, a law “On the foundations of national resistance” entered into force in Ukraine, according to which the territorial defense units became part of the Armed Forces. Under this new law, these units will appear in all district and regional centers. 

Under conditions of war, civilians from the territorial defense units will be responsible for carrying out “national resistance.” “Society’s mass readiness for armed resistance is what will help prevent war. When the enemy will have to make calculations [about] what will happen if he tries to occupy new territories of Ukraine, to start a war. Any enemy troops will feel extremely uncomfortable not only on the front line, but also in any city where citizens resisting the occupiers will operate,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement

In the Kharkiv region, there are hardly any vacancies left in these brigades. 

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Story by Olga Antonova, reporting from Kharkiv, Ukraine

Translation by Eilish Hart