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Kharkiv’s civilians under fire as Ukraine faces ‘catastrophic’ air defence shortage

REUTERS
Saturday, Apr 13, 2024

KHARKIV, Ukraine: Kateryna Velnychuk was having an afternoon nap when an explosion shattered the windows of her ground-floor flat, spraying shrapnel that tore holes through her walls and cupboards.

A Russian guided bomb had exploded in the courtyard outside the five-storey Soviet-era building, killing a postman on his rounds. As her flat filled with thick, milky smoke, the 22-year-old turned to see blood pouring from her boyfriend Vladyslav’s head.

“As we’ve been living…in a state of war, there was no sense of fear in the moment,” Velnychuk said. “You just understand there was an explosion. The only thought in your head is ‘I hope we survive’.”As Russia has intensified its air campaign against Ukraine in the last month, hammering its energy infrastructure and urban areas, no major city has been harder hit than Kharkiv.

Just 30-km from the Russian border in northeast Ukraine, Kharkiv was already the most exposed to missile attacks and bombardment.

But the drying up of Western military support in recent months – as a vital US military aid package has been stuck in Congress amid Republican resistance – has left Kharkiv even more dangerously unprotected. “We have a catastrophic shortage of air defence systems,” Governor Oleh Synehubov told Reuters, standing in the city’s vast central plaza, Freedom Square. “Not only in the Kharkiv region, but throughout the entire country. Especially in the Kharkiv region.”

The city is so near the border that Russian missiles can reach their target in less than a minute. The deployment of Ukraine’s precious air defences, such as the US-made Patriot surface-to-air missile systems, which are high-value targets for Russian airstrikes, has to be done more cautiously so close to enemy lines, officials say.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has urgently appealed for more air defence supplies from the West, said this week that almost a quarter of Kharkiv had been destroyed.

He accused Russia of seeking to reduce the city - which was home to 2 million people before the war - to rubble, clearing the way for its troops to advance. He said Ukraine’s military would repel any such offensive.

The bombardments come as the momentum on the battlefield has shifted in Russia’s favour, more than two years since it launched its Feb. 2022 invasion.

Russia denies targeting civilians and says Ukraine’s energy system is a legitimate military target. The Russian defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Reuters interviewed 15 civilians in Kharkiv who expressed their determination to stay in their homes despite the attacks - though two of them flagged the bleak situation on the power front as a real concern.

At least 10 missiles rained down on Kharkiv on Thursday, triggering emergency blackouts for 200,000 people in the surrounding region, as Russia launched its third major air attack on energy infrastructure across Ukraine in recent weeks.

The region’s top prosecutor Oleksandr Filchakov told Reuters that all of the Kharkiv region’s power facilities have been damaged or destroyed since Russia renewed its aerial assault last month, causing large-scale power cuts. Russia had test-fired a new kind of aircraft-launched guided bomb at least six times as of Tuesday, he said, like the one that struck the courtyard outside Velnychuk’s home.