‘They Are Erasing Streets’: Russian Attacks Bring War Nearer Kharkiv - The World News

‘They Are Erasing Streets’: Russian Attacks Bring War Nearer Kharkiv

After all-night air raid alarms, a weary Kharkiv woke up Saturday morning to a heavy gray sky and the disconcerting news that the Russian Army continued to press its advance on nearby Ukrainian territory.

All night, dull explosions from battlefields 40 miles away echoed across Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. On Saturday morning, a day after Russian forces seized several villages along the border and Ukraine rushed reinforcements to the area, the ghostly wail of air raid sirens continued to drift over the city’s deserted parks and long, empty boulevards.

Thousands of people are fleeing the border areas and arriving at shelters in Kharkiv.

Tetiana Novikova is one of them.

Until Friday, she had spent her entire 55 years in Vovchansk, a small town near the Russian border. She was born there, married there, worked in a factory there and raised two children there.

But the shelling became so terrifying that she and her family made the painful decision to abandon the home they had lived in for decades. On Friday evening, she arrived with her elderly parents, shaken, hungry and a bit lost, at a Kharkiv school that has been turned into a displaced persons’ reception center.

The only people left in Vovchansk, Ms. Novikova said, “are the old and the disabled, and they can’t move.”

“If a missile hits where they live,” she added, “the streets will be full of dead bodies.”

More than two years into it, the war in Ukraine continues to find new zones of misery.

On Friday at dawn, Russian forces launched a complex assault that unleashed fighter jets, heavy artillery, ground troops and armor against a slice of Ukraine’s northeastern border with Russia that had been relatively quiet. Russian troops stormed across the frontier and captured several villages and a group of beleaguered Ukrainian soldiers, according to images widely circulating on social media.

By Saturday, Russian forces were still shelling Vovchansk but there had been no major change in the front line. Russia’s defense ministry claimed to have captured five border settlements that lie along two main axes that Moscow’s troops appear to have followed, but Ukraine’s general staff said its forces were fighting defensive battles and mounting “counteroffensive measures” around Vovchansk and another town, Lyptsi.

The Ukrainians referred to the border areas as the “gray zone,” meaning that the fighting was too intense and the situation too fluid to say who had control.

Military analysts believe the new offensive is unlikely to reach the streets of Kharkiv. The Ukrainian military has built elaborate defenses around the city — digging miles of trenches and sewing the landscape with glistening razor wire, mines and countless small cement pyramids that block tanks — “dragons’ teeth,” as the soldiers here call them.

But analysts agree that this attack comes at an especially difficult time for Ukraine. Its forces are worn out, stretched thin and running low on ammunition. Supplies from a long-delayed American aid package are only beginning to trickle to the front lines, and the Ukrainians are more vulnerable than they have been in months.

“It is likely the coming weeks will be a very grim affair for the Ukrainian ground forces in the east,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and fellow at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based research group, in an initial assessment of the offensive.

“While the attacks at present appear to be small in scale,” he said, the purpose is to “dent Ukrainian morale — both civilian and military.”

“If the Ukrainians decide to hold ground at all costs, they will lose more of their increasingly smaller army,” he added.

The result, he said, could be “a severe test,” and “one of the toughest moments for Ukraine in the war so far.”

Russian forces sent reconnaissance and sabotage units across the border early Friday followed by devastating artillery strikes and aircraft bombs dropped deeper inside Ukrainian territory, according the Ukrainian news reports and the country’s ministry of defense. Video footage widely circulated on Ukrainian media channels revealed the aftermath in Vovchansk: fires, splintered trees and elegant, cream-colored buildings trimmed in white with giant holes punched through them and their walls turned into cascades of tumbling bricks.

With heavy shelling continuing and frontline reports patchy, it was difficult to assess on Saturday morning how much territory the Ukrainians may have lost. Some military analysts estimated that the Russian advance left them in control of at least 30 square kilometers.

American officials remained hopeful that Ukrainian troops would ultimately stop this Russian assault. For months, the Ukrainians have been preparing for it, and President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his overnight speech that Ukraine was sending reinforcements to the Kharkiv area.

Still, Ukraine must be careful how it responds, given how thin its troops are stretched. Russian forces have been slowly but steadily chewing through Ukrainian defenses 150 miles south, heading toward the small but strategically located town old factory town of Chasiv Yar. Recent reports indicate that Russian troops have advanced close enough to a critical highway to nearly cut Ukrainian supply lines to the town. The Russians attacked the norther border area precisely to distract the Ukrainian forces in this area, Ukrainian military officials said.

The northern border villages where fighting now rages have been fought over before. Vovchansk has experienced the full war cycle — occupied by Russian troops after the full-scale invasion in February 2022, liberated in September 2022 and sporadically shelled since then.

Life there, in recent days, has become untenable. There’s no phone service or electricity, and little food. All the shops are closed. Even the Ukrainian soldiers have left, residents reported, though Ukrainian officials have said their soldiers are managing to defend the town, perhaps from the outskirts.

“It’s impossible to go back,” Ms. Novikova said. “The Russians are destroying everything, she said. “They are erasing streets.”

While her family was hunkered down in their house on Friday, she said that a Russian aircraft bomb took out a nearby school. The blast wave shattered windows and rocked homes blocks away.

“And that’s just one bomb,” she said. “They are dropping dozens.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from Kharkiv, and Marc Santora and Constant Méheut from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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