'They are clearing roads': Russian attacks bring war closer to Kharkiv

After air raid warnings that lasted all night, a tired Kharkiv woke up Saturday morning to a heavy, gray sky and the disconcerting news that the Russian army was continuing to advance on nearby Ukrainian territory.

All night, dull explosions from battlefields 40 miles away echoed in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. On Saturday morning, the day after Russian forces seized several villages along the border and Ukraine sent reinforcements to the area, the ghostly wail of air raid sirens continued to hover over the city's deserted parks and long empty avenues.

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

Tetiana Novikova is one of them.

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

But the bombings 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 little lost, at a Kharkiv school turned into a reception center for displaced people.

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

“If a missile hits where they live,” he added, “the streets will be full of corpses.”

After more than two years, the war in Ukraine continues to find new areas of misery.

At dawn Friday, Russian forces launched a complex assault that unleashed fighter planes, heavy artillery, ground troops and armored vehicles against a part of Ukraine's northeastern border with Russia that had been relatively calm. Russian troops stormed across the border and captured several villages and a group of besieged Ukrainian soldiers, according to images widely circulated on social media.

On Saturday, Russian forces were still shelling Vovchansk, but no major changes had occurred on the front lines. The Russian Defense Ministry said it had captured five border settlements that lie along two main axes that Moscow's troops appear to have followed, but the Ukrainian General Staff said its forces were fighting defensive battles and taking “counteroffensive measures ” around Vovchansk and in another city, Lyptsi.

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

Military analysts believe the new offensive is unlikely to reach the streets of Kharkiv. The Ukrainian army has built elaborate defenses around the city, digging miles of trenches and stitching the landscape with gleaming barbed wire, mines and countless small concrete pyramids that block tanks — “dragon's teeth,” as the soldiers here call them .

But analysts agree that this attack comes at a particularly difficult time for Ukraine. His forces are depleted, depleted and low on ammunition. Supplies from a long-delayed American aid package are just starting to arrive on the front lines, and Ukrainians are more vulnerable than they have been in months.

“It is likely that the next few weeks will be a very sad affair for the Ukrainian ground forces in the east,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and member of the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based research group, in an early assessment of the offensive.

“Although the attacks at the moment appear to be small-scale,” he said, the aim is to “dent Ukrainian morale, both civilian and military.”

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

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

Russian forces sent reconnaissance and sabotage units across the border late Friday, followed by devastating artillery strikes and dropped aerial bombs deeper inside Ukrainian territory, according to Ukrainian news outlets and the country's defense ministry. Video footage widely circulated on Ukrainian media channels revealed the aftermath in Vovchansk: fires, splintered trees and elegant cream-colored buildings finished in white with giant holes drilled through them and their walls transformed into cascades of crumbling bricks.

With continued heavy shelling and patchy front-line reports, it was difficult to gauge how much territory the Ukrainians might lose on Saturday morning. Some military analysts estimate that the Russian advance has left them in control of at least 30 square kilometers.

American officials hoped that Ukrainian troops would eventually stop this Russian assault. Ukrainians have been preparing for months and President Volodymyr Zelenskyj, in his nightly speech, said that Ukraine is sending reinforcements to the Kharkiv area.

However, Ukraine must be careful how it responds, given its troop shortages. Russian forces are slowly but steadily breaking through Ukrainian defenses 150 miles to the south, heading towards the small but strategic industrial city of Khasiv Yar. Recent reports indicate that Russian troops have advanced close enough to a critical highway to nearly cut off Ukrainian supply lines to the city. The Russians attacked the northern border area specifically to distract Ukrainian forces in this area, Ukrainian military officials said.

The northern border villages, where the fighting is now raging, have been fought over before. Vovchansk has lived through the entire war cycle: occupied by Russian troops after the full-scale invasion in February 2022, liberated in September 2022, and sporadically bombed since then.

Life there, in recent days, has become unsustainable. There is no telephone service or electricity and little food. All shops are closed. Ukrainian soldiers also left, residents said, although Ukrainian officials said their soldiers were managing to defend the city, perhaps from the outskirts.

“It's impossible to go back,” Ms. Novikova said. “The Russians are destroying everything, she said. “They are clearing the roads.”

As his family hunkered down at home Friday, he said a Russian aerial bomb blew up a nearby school. The shock wave shattered windows and shook homes a few blocks away.

“And this is just a bombshell,” he said. “They're releasing dozens of them.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from Kharkiv and Marco Santora AND Constant Méheut from Kiev, Ukraine.

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