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'They bomb us because they can't beat us': Kharkiv civilians suffer as Russia runs out of options

The city of Kharkiv was a bustling metropolis just a month ago. Now, large areas of the Ukrainian city resemble Stalingrad more than Stuttgart, as Kharkiv falls victim to what locals and experts say is a Russian strategy of targeting civilians in face of faltering military advance.

Ukraine's 2nd-largest city, which is near Russian border, has been under attack since beginning of invasion

A man points to his destroyed home following a Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 24. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

The city of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest, was a bustling metropolis just a month ago. Chic eateries and sleek shopping malls sat alongside elegant neo-baroque architecture in what had been a rapidly developing urban centre.

Now, large areas of the city resemble Stalingrad more than Stuttgart, as Kharkiv falls victim to what locals and experts say is a Russian strategy of targeting civilians.

Entering the city from the south, there are initially few signs of the war, save the military barricades and checkpoints at regular intervals. 

Downtown Kharkiv is a different story: windows and storefronts blown out by artillery shelling, other buildings demolished entirely by airstrikes or cruise missile hits.

Along Kharkiv's central Moskovsky Avenue, an apartment building scorched by rocket artillery fire sits across from a massive crater in a parking lot, the result of an airstrike the day prior to CBC's visit on Saturday.

"The rockets hit yesterday, and there was a huge fire in the apartment building," said Oleg Tornenko, a 55-year-old resident of the building.

"[The Russians] want people to leave here. They're trying to force them out."

Black smoke rises into the sky from Kharkiv's Barabashovo market, which was reportedly hit by shelling, on March 17. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

While most Russian shelling of Kharkiv to date has occurred during the evening, strikes in daylight hours have picked up in recent days, locals say.

"The last two or three days, they're bombing us during the day," said Elena Yelagina, a 62-year-old museum director who lives in the city centre.

"Not only by plane, but Grads (vehicle-mounted rocket launcher) and Smerch (rocket artillery), even Iskanders (ballistic missiles). I can already tell them apart just by the sound."

The internal components of a 300mm rocket that appears to have contained cluster bombs launched from a BM-30 Smerch rocket launcher embedded in the ground near the Memorial to the Victims of Totalitarianism in a forest on the outskirts of Kharkiv. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

'Every single day, something explodes'

The timing of the strikes appears designed to maximize civilian casualties and instill terror in the local population.

"This strike was at 8 a.m.," said Dmitri Yakovlev, a 26-year-old police officer, of the strike that hit the Moskovsky Ave. apartment building.

"Very often [Russian] shelling starts just after the curfew ends at 6 a.m. People go to queue for humanitarian aid, and they hit them."

The strikes have been constant, and without apparent military goals.

"Every single day, something explodes," said Yakovlev. "There are no military objects [in the city centre], only residential areas. They are intentionally shelling [civilians]."

Dmitri Yakovlev is a 26-year-old police officer in Kharkiv. He said the Russian strikes on the city have been constant, and without apparent military goals. 'Every single day something explodes,' said Yakovlev. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

Kharkiv is a key Russian prize in this war — a Russian-speaking city just 15 kilometres from the border. There were numerous Russia-backed attempts in 2014 to declare a "Kharkiv People's Republic" in the mould of those established in Donetsk and Luhansk, but the city has remained under Ukrainian government control.

Russian forces made numerous attempts to capture the city in the invasion's opening day, sending in lightly armoured special forces units in a bid to seize local government buildings.

Yakovlev, the police officer, witnessed some of those battles.

"They tried to break through in the first days, but too many of them died," he said.

"On Feb. 27, five Russian Tigr [armoured vehicles] broke into the city. One of them reached our [police] base — I think they were lost, because [the soldiers inside] just ran out and tried to hide in the nearby school.

"We captured one of the two that survived [the ensuing battle], who told us that he wanted to surrender earlier, but [Russian] commanders don't allow that."

Following those failed incursions, Russian forces have made few attempts to breach the city, instead subjecting it to massive — and increasing — bombardment.

Damage at a school destroyed by a Russian air bomb in Kharkiv. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 23 shows the damage in a classroom at a Kharkiv school hit by a Russian air bomb. (Sergey/Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian strategy unclear

Experts say this is part of a shift in Moscow's strategy to focus more on siege warfare as its initial advances in Ukraine bog down.

Ukrainian forces have thus far managed to keep Russian troops on the outskirts of Kharkiv, after defeating the attempts in the war's opening days for a Russian "thunder run" to capture the city. 

Russia, for its part, denies that its troops are even attacking Kharkiv, as foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated on March 3.

A Kharkiv resident walks amid the debris of a burning house, destroyed after a Russian attack, on March 24. (Felipe Dana/AP)

"In some cases, it appears that Russian forces do not plan to take major cities like Kharkiv," said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses.

"They lack the manpower for those assaults. Instead, they've been striking cities to apply pressure and signal to other towns that they're prepared to engage in indiscriminate shelling in order to coerce them into surrender."

This strategy is also in play in other areas of Ukraine — particularly, the southeast city of Mariupol, where Russian forces are pounding the trapped civilians and defenders amid a grinding advance. 

People lie on the floor of a hospital during shelling by Russian forces in Mariupol, a city that has suffered relentless attacks against civilian infrastructure since the start of the war. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

Officials in Mariupol say 80 per cent of the city's civilian infrastructure has been destroyed, including the Mariupol drama theatre, which was struck on March 16 despite housing more than 1,000 civilians who had taken shelter there and with the word "children" written in large Cyrillic script outside.

Others have confirmed Russia's intentionally destructive approach. Human Rights Watch found evidence of cluster munitions use in heavily populated areas of Kharkiv, where fewer than 500,000 civilians from a pre-war population of 1.5 million remain. 

Kharkiv regional police said that between Feb. 24 and March 7, 133 civilians were killed in the city, with another 319 wounded.

WATCH | Kharkiv residents clear damage from Russian shelling:

Kharkiv volunteers work to clear rubble, reinforce buildings

11 months ago
Duration 0:58
Residents of Kharkiv, Ukraine, are pitching in to help remove debris, erect fences, and shore up residential buildings to keep each other safe and to ward off looters and thieves.

'They won't beat us'

The results of Russia's tactics are evident across Kharkiv.

Moving northward from the city centre, it feels as if nearly every street is bombed out. Twisted rebar and blasted concrete dominate the cityscape for kilometres on end. The damage is so widespread that it's difficult to imagine what military purpose the Russians hoped to accomplish.

Yakovlev, the police officer, needs no more convincing of Russia's approach.

"After they failed to enter the city, they understood that they wouldn't be able to take [Kharkiv]," he said.

"Their soldiers are far worse [fighters] than ours, and absolutely everyone here is against them. So they decided that instead, they would terrorize the civilians to make people leave."

A man in a wheelchair moves past rescue workers clearing the rubble of a building of the Kharkiv Regional Institute of Public Administration destroyed by Russian bombardment. (Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

Fear, he believes, is the primary objective of these attacks.

"The only option Russia has is to just destroy the city, as they have done with Mariupol," Yakovlev said. "So it's pure terror that they are using now."

As he speaks, distant artillery thumps echo constantly, coming in small groups every few seconds. The tone of one group is different — lighter and without the change in air pressure.

"That was ours," said Yakovlev. "They bomb us because they can't beat us. They won't beat us."

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard at a checkpoint near Kharkiv on March 23. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neil Hauer

Freelance contributor

Neil Hauer is a Canadian freelance journalist reporting on the former Soviet Union, based in Yerevan, Armenia, but currently reporting from Ukraine. His work has been featured in CNN, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy magazine and other outlets. He can be found on Twitter at @NeilPHauer, or contacted via email at neil.hauer@gmail.com.

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