Special Report

From Kharkiv, Ukraine

Deep underground, in a metro station below Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, Yana Kovalchuk, 57, was taking the invasion of Ukraine personally. “The Russians don’t see Ukraine at all,” she said, clutching souvenirs of a comfortable life that ended on 24 February when President Putin launched his “special military operation” otherwise known as a war. “To them we are like a secondary lower form of life. We don’t really exist or have a say in the future. We’re inferior. That’s why they can shell our cities and destroy our homes without giving it a second thought. It’s beyond cruel.”

Just over half of Kharkiv’s 1.5 million population has left since the invasion but, on the night I visited, about 500 people were sheltering from bombs in the subway’s marbled atrium. On a camp bed beside her, Yana’s six-year-old grandson Misha was gazing blankly at a Spiderman cartoon on a laptop. The family had salvaged the computer – along with a pile of folded clothes, some books, a photo album, a cuddly toy and a mug emblazoned with the smiling face of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky – from the ruins of their apartment in the north-eastern Saltivka district, which used to be called “Moscow district” until its name was changed last month.

The paradox of this war is that each side still believes it can win, even though the fighting will only end as a result of negotiations

The name change reflects a shift in the mood of a city that was always felt to be sympathetic to Moscow in the run-up to the war. Russia’s language, history and culture are a part of the fabric of Kharkiv, which was once the capital of Soviet Ukraine. But now, even Russian speakers are boycotting their mother tongue in favour of Ukrainian, which many of them speak with difficulty.

Serhiy Tytkov, for instance, refused to speak Russian to me when we met on a night train from Kyiv to Kharkiv. So our conversation had to accommodate two different languages rather like the Minsk Accords, which failed to resolve a dispute over language rights in Donetsk and Luhansk during an eight-year hiatus when Putin could still plausibly claim to be defending something instead of blasting it to smithereens.

“All of us are dreaming about just one thing – that this war will end,” Serhiy said. “But it must end the right way. We can’t let it become a stalemate or a long-term frozen conflict. I hope the world never just gets used to there being a war in Ukraine.”

No doubt that hope is shared by Zelensky’s military adviser Olexy Arestovych, who suggested recently that Ukraine’s war with Russia could last until 2035 if neither side wins on the battlefield. However, the longer the war continues, the greater the death and destruction it will cause. Russia’s invasion has already cost tens of thousands of lives, forced twelve million Ukrainians to flee their homes (about six million have left the country), and destroyed $60 billion of the country’s infrastructure. Is Ukraine winning because Russia failed to capture Kyiv and has been pushed back from the outskirts of Kharkiv? Or is it losing because Russia has taken – or demolished – Mariupol and is now encircling the towns of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk?

The paradox of this war is that each side still believes it can win, even though the fighting will only end as a result of negotiations. Three and a half months into the conflict, it is apparent that a kind of war fatigue has set in among the older generation of Ukrainians. Many of them would perhaps settle for the “new normal” of a frozen conflict, with Moscow consolidating its hold on the land corridor from Donbas to Crimea along the Black Sea to Odessa and Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova.

The younger generation, on the other hand, is more uncompromising in its view of Putin and his menacing attitudes, or so I was told by Olena Mayko, a 29-year-old architect from Berdyansk. “Young people are willing to fight on until there is a victory, whatever the cost,” she said. “And I think that definitely shows a certain kind of understanding that we just can’t live with this maniac for a neighbour any more. Any ceasefire means a frozen conflict that will only be temporary because Putin will always come back for more.

“There is no way that Ukrainians will allow Zelensky to sign some kind of treaty saying that Ukraine is happy to cede Mariupol or Odessa, or even Donetsk or Crimea, to Russia. If he did, he’d probably be ousted by a popular uprising the very next day. Any outcome except total defeat for Russia will only embolden Putin. So we can’t allow him to hold on even to a small slice of what’s he’s already taken.”

“You see, as young people, we’re actually trying to build a future here in Ukraine and actually we don’t care who the president of the country is as long as we have free speech and the rule of law. We take a look at Russia and then we take a look at the West and we see how people live there and we want to live just like that. That’s something worth fighting for.”

Hugh Barnes is a veteran war reporter and author of three books: “Special Effects”, “Gannibal: the Moor of Petersburg” and “Understanding Iran”; he’s also editor of green-socialist.com

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