Russia-Ukraine Crisis: Why is Kharkiv important? | Explained

Ukraine’s counteroffensives in Kharkiv have become a symbol of the country’s resistance to Russian occupation.

Updated - May 20, 2024 04:19 pm IST

Published - May 20, 2024 03:22 pm IST

Smoke rises over Kharkiv city after a Russian missile strike on May 17.

Smoke rises over Kharkiv city after a Russian missile strike on May 17. | Photo Credit: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko

The story so far: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday said the situation in the city of Kharkiv — a town in the northeastern part of the country that has seen intense fighting since Russia invaded the country in February 2022 — has stabilised. President Zelensky visited Kharkiv, located around 30km south of the Russia-Ukraine border, on Thursday and held meetings with officials to assess the situation in the area. “Our counterattacks are ongoing, including in other parts of the Kharkiv border area,” he said in a video message after the visit. 

President Zelenskyy also accused Russia of trying to “expand the war.” 

A brief timeline of Kharkiv since 2022 

Kharkiv has been one of Russia’s prime targets since it invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The region was the centre of intense fighting at the beginning of the invasion, until Ukrainian forces managed to push Russia back in May 2022. Russia, however, continued to shell the Kharkiv region, destroying critical infrastructure like thermal power plants and educational institutions. 

By October 2022, Ukraine had control over most of Kharkiv oblast. Russia, however, kept up its attack for most of 2023. It renewed the offensive in the region in May 2024, and Ukraine’s commander-in-chief on May 12 said the situation in Kharkiv has “significantly worsened.”

Why is Kharkiv important?

Kharkiv is the second-largest city in Ukraine after the capital Kyiv, population-wise. It is a major industrial town in the country and is home to multiple institutes of higher education. This makes Kharkiv a significant economic asset for Ukraine. The city, and the larger oblast of which it is a part, have been repeatedly attacked by Russia since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Ukraine’s counteroffensives in the region have become a symbol of the country’s resistance to Russian occupation even as it remains one of Moscow’s major targets.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday said his forces are advancing in the Kharkiv region to create a buffer zone to protect his country’s border regions. However, the city of Kharkiv itself is not a part of his plan, Mr. Putin added. 

Mr. Putin also blamed Ukraine for shelling Russia’s border regions, calling it the reason for his country’s renewed offensive in Kharkiv. “I said publicly that if this continues, we will be forced to create a security zone, a buffer zone. That is what we are doing,” he was quoted as saying. 

Russia has mentioned creating a “sanitary zone” in the Kharkiv region on previous occasions, too. When Mr. Putin pledged to carve out this zone after winning the Russian presidential election in March, he did not provide specifics, but security analysts believed he could attempt to capture Kharkiv city, as per an Associated Press report. 

“In Russian discourse on the war, elaborated by President Putin, the matter of Ukrainian identity is central, and the denial of such identity underpins the strategic plan for the destruction of Ukraine as a major European state. Kharkiv, which is a predominantly Russian-speaking city, makes a key exhibit in such discourse - and the resolute rejection by its inhabitants of Russian plans for annexation constitutes major evidence of falsity of Putin’s claims,” Pavel Baev, research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, told The Hindu

Mr. Baev also believes that Russia’s offensive in Kharkiv is aimed at distracting attention from Donbas. “Russian attacks toward Kharkiv remain limited in scope and are aimed primarily at distracting Ukrainian forces from the main theatre of operations in Donbas. Despite frequent missile strikes and bombings, Kharkiv remains a major urban centre, and Russian would need a grouping of at least 150,000 troops to conduct an operation on its encirclement and capture. No such force has been gathered, and it is in fact beyond Russia’s capacity to build such grouping without weakening its positions on the key strategic directions in Southern Ukraine,” he said.

Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region are critical points of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On February 21, 2022, days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Putin had recognised the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and also declared that he would provide them military support. 

What next?

Air defence coverage in Kharkiv city area will allow Ukraine to restrict Russia’s aviation operations if western countries allow Ukraine to intercept Russian aircraft in Russian airspace, since they are capable of striking Kharkiv City without ever leaving Russian airspace, the Institute for the Study of War noted. So far, Ukraine’s European allies and the U.S. have prohibited Ukraine from striking targets within Russia.  

However, in his recent Ukraine visit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it is up to Ukraine to chart its course in the war. “We have not encouraged or enabled strikes outside of Ukraine, but ultimately Ukraine has to make decisions for itself about how it’s going to conduct this war, a war it’s conducting in defence of its freedom, of its sovereignty, of its territorial integrity. And we will continue to back Ukraine with the equipment that it needs to succeed, that it needs to win,” Mr. Blinken said in a press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on May 15 in Kyiv. 

(With inputs from agencies)

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