Ukraine-Russia: Kharkiv is resilient as it faces the threat of invasion

The northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv has drawn international attention since the country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, signalled the threat of a Russian occupation of the city last week. For their part, local residents criticised the Ukrainian leader's remarks; they say they are more fearful that destabilisation operations could intensify. FRANCE 24 travelled to Kharkiv to learn more.

The morning ritual at Alekseevka primary school in Kharkiv looks much like any other the world over. Except perhaps that, in the bitter chill of -10°C, the usual buggies give way to luges and mini-sleds in conveying the youngest children to school along icy roads.

But on this wintry Thursday, what is really casting a chill for the parents of these schoolchildren is the recent spate of bomb scares levied against dozens of schools across the country. Three days ago, it was Alekseevka's turn with pupils evacuated over a bomb threat while police officers and bomb-disposal experts searched the building for explosives.

"The teacher called to tell me that the evacuation hadn't been a drill because the SBU (Ukraine's security service) had received an anonymous tip saying there was a bomb at the school," recounted Yuliya after dropping her little boy off on Thursday morning.

"There was no panic and my 7-year-old son wasn't scared; he was only concerned about having left his bag at the school. But I was afraid myself because the police never manage to locate [the perpetrators of these threats] despite their technical resources," she told FRANCE 24. Yuliya was all the more disturbed to learn, via the media, that every school in Zaporizhzhia, 250 kilometres to the south, had been hit with bomb scares at the same time.

Anastasia takes her daughter for a sled ride near the Alekseevka school in Kharkiv. The young woman says there no sense of panic in the city. © Mehdi Chebil

It is that sort of diffused threat that weighs on the atmosphere in Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million just 40 kilometres from the Russian border. Given its history and its largely Russian-speaking population, the city would be an obvious target for its neighbour. President Zelensky's remarks on January 20 surmising that Russia could seek to capture Kharkiv raised existing tensions another notch.

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"It's stupid on the president's part to say things like that because it can only breed panic and panic is exactly what will make it easier to invade Ukraine," said Sergei Godz, another parent dropping his child off for school at Alekseevka.

Psychological pressure and destabilisation

The refrain is a familiar one in Kharkiv. Residents lament the recent tendency to focus on the sheer scope of Russia's massive military deployment only to lose sight of what they see as the essential: an incessant psychological warfare. Far from the time-honored Blitzkrieg-type scenarios – the blanket artillery fire, the surging tanks, the invasion by ground troops – local officials and academics are more worried about an intensification of destabilisation operations.

"The biggest threat at the moment is to have terrorist attacks. They've used it before. Since 2014, 10 attacks have been foiled by security services, and two have been successful," Yuliya Bidenko, a professor at Karazin University in Kharkiv, told FRANCE 24. She also cites cyberattacks, the amplified broadcasting reach of television transmitters on the Russian side of the border in 2017, and the false-alarm threats against hospitals and schools as elements in Russia's strategic arsenal.

The atmosphere inside the Stina pub, where an explosive attack left several injured in November 2014. "Putin won't have the b…. to invade Ukraine," says Igor (right), who was there when the attack happened. © Mehdi Chebil

"The resurgence of bomb threats is clearly linked to the international tensions," added Dmytro Bukhlard, a municipal official elected in Kharkiv. "In the past, the anonymous tips that could be traced were sent from Russia or the territories held by separatists in the Donbass," said Bukhlard, who is also director of Kharkiv's Anti-corruption centre.

"The Russians are trying to destabilise the country and to provoke chaos. That has unfortunately already had an impact on the economy," he added. "We see it in the decreased value of the national currency and in the decisions some technology firms have made to outsource their personnel to western Ukraine or to Poland."

'No one wants to become Russian'

East of downtown, the prevailing geopolitical strain means continuing hardship at Kharkiv's Barabashovo Market – one of central Europe's largest. Several shops appeared shut on the day FRANCE 24 visited the 75-hectare commercial labyrinth, which once enjoyed the fruits of its prime location on the trade route between Ukraine and Russia.

"I had to take a second job in my son's company to maintain my standard of living because business here fell after 2017," Piotr Pereborshikov, a salesman in a handbag shop, told FRANCE 24. "Before, more than half of the buyers came from Russia, from Donetsk, and from Luhansk. Now, they can't travel here easily anymore and they have to take detours," he explained. "Everyone here wants to have trade with Russia… but no one wants to become Russian."

Piotr Pereborshikov, a merchant at the Barabashovo Market, notes that many Kharkiv residents have family in Russia. "No one wants war here," he says. © Mehdi Chebil

Kharkiv symbolises, perhaps better than any other city, the gap that has grown wider between Ukraine and Russia since the start of the conflict with Donbass separatists in 2014. At that time, the sudden influx of 300,000 people fleeing those territories ravaged by war highlighted for local residents the dangers secession posed, said Karazin University's Bidenko.

"Maybe it's new for people in Kyiv and Lviv, but we live 40 kilometres from the border and since 2014 we knew we could be next," the professor said.

On the streets of Kharkiv, there is a palpable sense of resilience. Locals admit to a degree of anxiety, but life goes on as usual – even amid the battle of nerves playing out on the world stage between Russia and the West. Here in Kharkiv, there is no special security deployment. The bars and cafés are drawing crowds.

Moreover, Russia's latest moves appear to have heightened locals' mistrust in Moscow, even among the Russian-speakers who are usually inclined to side with Ukraine's imposing neighbour.

"People are more aware than in 2014. We know that Russian 'political tourists' would bring death and destruction. Take the scenario where they gather the babushkas to cry calling for Putin's help. It would not work because people, including most voters for the pro-Russia opposition platform, would be opposed to that," Bidenko said. "We can say thank you Mister Putin for uniting us," she added, with a wry smile.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Artmotion Spain

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