‘They’re bombing us because they can’t beat us’: Civilians in Kharkiv suffer as Russia runs out of options

The city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest, was a bustling metropolis just a month ago. Chic restaurants and elegant shopping malls stood alongside elegant neo-baroque architecture in what had been a rapidly developing urban center.

Today, large areas of the city look more like Stalingrad than Stuttgart, as Kharkiv falls victim to what residents and experts say is a Russian strategy to target civilians.

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

Kharkiv’s city center is a different story: shop windows and storefronts blown away by artillery fire, other buildings completely demolished by airstrikes or cruise missile fire.

Along Kharkiv’s central Moskovsky Avenue, an apartment building burned by rocket artillery fire sits across from a huge crater in a parking lot, the result of an airstrike the day before the visit to CBC Saturday.

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

“[The Russians] want people to get out of here. They try to force them to leave.”

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 taken place during the evening, daylight strikes have resumed in recent days, residents say.

“The last two or three days they bombard us during the day,” said Elena Yelagina, a 62-year-old museum director who lives in the city center.

“Not just in aircraft, but Grads (vehicle-mounted rocket launchers) and Smerch (rocket artillery), even Iskanders (ballistic missiles). I can already tell them apart just by sound.”

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

“Every day something explodes”

The timing of the strikes appears to have been designed to maximize civilian casualties and strike terror into the local population.

“This strike took place at 8 a.m.,” Dmitry Yakovlev, a 26-year-old policeman, said of the strike that hit the building on Moskovsky Avenue.

“Very often [Russian] the shelling begins just after the 6 a.m. curfew ends. People line up to receive humanitarian aid, and they beat them.”

The strikes were constant and without apparent military objectives.

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

Dmitry Yakovlev is a 26-year-old policeman in Kharkiv. He said Russian strikes on the city have been constant and without apparent military objectives. “Every day something explodes,” Yakovlev said. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

Kharkiv is a key Russian objective in this war – a Russian-speaking city just 15 kilometers from the border. There were numerous Russian-backed attempts in 2014 to declare a “People’s Republic of Kharkiv” along the lines of those established in Donetsk and Lugansk, but the city remained under Ukrainian government control.

Russian forces made numerous attempts to capture the city on the opening day of the invasion, sending lightly armored special forces units in an attempt to seize local government buildings.

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

“They tried to break through in the early days, but too many of them died,” he said.

“On February 27, five Russian tigers [armoured vehicles] burst into the city. One of them reached our [police] base – I think they were lost, because [the soldiers inside] just ran away and tried to hide in the nearby school.

“We have captured one of the two survivors [the ensuing battle]who told us he wanted to go earlier, but [Russian] the commanders don’t allow that.”

Following these failed incursions, Russian forces made few attempts to break through the city, subjecting it instead to heavy and escalating bombardment.

Damage to a school destroyed by a Russian air bomb in Kharkiv. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

A photo taken on March 23 shows the damage to a classroom in a school in Kharkiv hit by a Russian aerial bomb. (Sergey/Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian strategy is unclear

Experts say it is part of a shift in Moscow’s strategy to focus more on siege warfare as its initial advances in Ukraine stall.

Ukrainian forces have so far managed to keep Russian troops on the outskirts of Kharkiv, after defeat attempts in the early days of the war by a Russian “thunderbolt” to capture the city.

Russia, for its part, denies that its troops are even attacking Kharkiv, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared the 3 of March.

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

“In some cases, it looks like Russian forces are not planning to take big cities like Kharkiv,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses.

“They lack the manpower for these assaults. Instead, they hit towns to pressure and signal to other towns that they were ready to engage in indiscriminate bombardment in order to coerce them into surrendering. .”

This strategy is also in play in other parts of Ukraine, particularly in the southeast city of Mariupol, where Russian forces are pounding civilians and defenders trapped in the midst of a searing advance.

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

Mariupol officials say 80% of the city’s civil infrastructure was destroyed, including the Mariupol Drama Theater, which was hit on March 16 despite housing more than 1,000 civilians who had taken refuge there and with the word “children” written in large Cyrillic characters outside.

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

Kharkiv regional police said that between February 24 and March 7, 133 civilians were killed in the city, and 319 others injured.

WATCH | Residents of Kharkiv eliminate the damage caused by Russian shelling:

Kharkiv volunteers work to clear rubble and reinforce buildings

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

“They won’t beat us”

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

Moving north from downtown, it looks like almost every street is bombed. Twisted rebar and sandblasted concrete dominate the cityscape for miles. The damage is so extensive that it is difficult to imagine what military objective the Russians hoped to accomplish.

Yakovlev, the police officer, no longer needs to be convinced of the Russian approach.

“After failing to enter the city, they understood that they could not take [Kharkiv],” he said.

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

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

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

“The only option Russia has is to simply destroy the city, like they did with Mariupol,” Yakovlev said. “So it’s pure terror they’re using now.”

As he speaks, distant artillery blasts constantly echo, coming in small groups every few seconds. The tone of a group is different – lighter and without a change in atmospheric pressure.

“It was up to us,” Yakovlev said. “They are bombing 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)