Dispatch

As Russia Invades, Resolve and Uncertainty in Kharkiv

Residents prepare for all-out war as Moscow hammers Ukrainian cities and military targets with missiles and airstrikes.

A couple look out over Kharkiv, Ukraine, the day before the Russian invasion.
A couple look out over Kharkiv, Ukraine, the day before the Russian invasion.
A couple look out over Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 23, the day before the Russian invasion, as a Ukrainian flag flies over the city. Jack Losh photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures.

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Ukrainians woke Thursday morning to the sound of explosions as Russian forces bombarded major cities and unleashed a full-scale invasion early on Feb. 24.

Russian cruise and ballistic missiles struck airfields, military sites, and key infrastructure in the capital, Kyiv, as well as Kharkiv, Mariupol, Dnipro, and Odessa. Video footage indicates that populated areas have also been hit by Russian rockets despite claims by Moscow that it is only targeting military infrastructure.

The invasion began on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who announced a “special military operation” at dawn during a short televised address. The speech came just a day after additional Russian troops moved into the newly Kremlin-recognized breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine. Within minutes, explosions erupted near major Ukrainian cities as artillery rockets lit up the night sky.

A couple look out over Kharkiv, Ukraine the day before the Russian invasion.
A couple look out over Kharkiv, Ukraine the day before the Russian invasion.

A couple look out over Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 23, the day before the Russian invasion, as a Ukrainian flag flies over the city.Jack Losh photos for Foreign Policy

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Ukrainians woke Thursday morning to the sound of explosions as Russian forces bombarded major cities and unleashed a full-scale invasion early on Feb. 24.

Russian cruise and ballistic missiles struck airfields, military sites, and key infrastructure in the capital, Kyiv, as well as Kharkiv, Mariupol, Dnipro, and Odessa. Video footage indicates that populated areas have also been hit by Russian rockets despite claims by Moscow that it is only targeting military infrastructure.

The invasion began on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who announced a “special military operation” at dawn during a short televised address. The speech came just a day after additional Russian troops moved into the newly Kremlin-recognized breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine. Within minutes, explosions erupted near major Ukrainian cities as artillery rockets lit up the night sky.

Empty morning streets in Kharkiv as the city's outskirts are bombed.
Empty morning streets in Kharkiv as the city's outskirts are bombed.

Empty morning streets in Kharkiv as the city’s outskirts are bombed on Feb. 24, the day of the Russian invasion.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, loud booms were heard before dawn as columns of dark smoke rose on the outskirts of the city. One video shows what appears to be the tail section of a rocket fired from a Smerch heavy multiple rocket launcher sticking out of the pavement near an Orthodox church in the city—a worrying sign that imprecise weapons are striking civilian areas.

In the city center, large lines formed outside banks and gas stations as residents prepared for an assault on the city. Yet a resigned calm was also palpable as dawn broke over Kharkiv’s cobbled boulevards, where people quietly loaded their vehicles with bags—some even heading to work. On one corner, a street sweeper dressed in a high-visibility vest got on with his job.

Local residents in the metro in Kharkiv.
Local residents in the metro in Kharkiv.

Local residents in the metro in Kharkiv on Feb. 24.

Underground in the metro, commuters sat in stony silence, glued to their phones to follow the unfolding crisis as Russian artillery, armored vehicles, and troops pushed toward the city from the border, less than 30 miles away.

Anton, a biologist and military reservist in his 30s, was bracing himself for battle. (He asked to withhold publication of his surname.)

“I will take care of some business, then I am heading straight to the local military administration,” he told Foreign Policy. “We want to fight.”

As the Russian blitz prompted warnings from world leaders that it could trigger the biggest war in Europe since 1945, Anton had more domestic concerns on his mind. “I have a lot of pets,” he added. “I’m worried about them.”

“First thing we heard about this were the booms in the city,” said Bob, a British expat in Kharkiv who gave only his first name due to security concerns. “I actually went back to sleep. I figured I couldn’t do anything about it—it was 5 in the morning and pitch black outside.”

For now, he, like many other residents here, are unsure of whether to stay or leave.

“We’re in the process of making a plan but don’t know what that plan is yet. I genuinely have no idea yet. The next 24 hours will be key. The question is, will this just be attacks on military installations, or are we about to see Russian soldiers on the street?”

Locals in Kyiv sought safety in bomb shelters as air raid sirens sounded over the capital and streams of cars clogged a highway out of the city.

The Ukrainian armed forces said the Russian military was carrying out “intensive shelling” of its units in the east, as well as missile strikes on Boryspil Airport near Kyiv and several other airports. The Ukrainian air force is also fighting off an air attack by Russia, the statement added.

Ukrainian officials said troops in neighboring Belarus have joined the Russian attack from Ukraine’s north. A senior advisor to Ukraine’s interior ministry warned that Russian troops could soon move on Kharkiv.

On Freedom Square in the center of Kharkiv, Katerina, a hotel receptionist, was preparing to clock off the night shift at 7 a.m. on Thursday.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” she said. “People told me there were explosions, but I was working inside so didn’t hear. My parents live in the suburbs, and I live in the city center—I don’t know what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go.”

Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures. Twitter: @jacklosh

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