Only Minutes Away From Putin’s Troops: Ukrainian Civilians Speak Out

By Emily Zaal and Lukas Stock. Header image by Yurii Rassokha.

February 17th 2022. Russia has amassed over 140.000 – now combat-ready – troops at the Ukrainian border. While Russian officials say they have no plan to invade, NATO claims that the risk of invasion is still high. 9to5 spoke to civilians from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, only 40 kilometers from the Russian border, to get a glimpse into how this possible invasion affects their lives. 

“Everyone is worried – nobody wants a full scale war,” says Yurii Rassokha, a Kharkiv native. But if war was to break out, he would consider standing on the front line to defend Ukraine’s freedom. “I am not a soldier, not a warrior, but I think this is our responsibility.”

According to the Conflict Intelligence Team in Russia (CIT), a group of Russian investigative journalists, Soviet T-80U main battle tanks and heavy 2S7 artillery systems were spotted at the village of Veselaya Lopan. Satellite images and TikTok videos prove their presence.

Veselaya Lopan is only 15km away from the Ukrainian border and roughly 55km from the Kharkiv city center. Depending on its ammunition, the 2S7 artillery system can hit targets up to 55km away. A paved road connects Kharkiv to the village of Veselaya Lopan, making for an easy transportation route. As the T80U tanks can reach a top speed of 80km/h, an attack would likely reach Kharkiv within hours.

The 2S7 artillery system. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Distance between Veselaya Lopan and Kharkiv city center via road (62.2km) and air (55.8km). Source: Google Maps

“I would try to flee, but I have no idea which way I would go.”

Valentin Vodolazhsky

Even though Russian troops have formed at the border, Kharkiv resident Valentin Vodolazhsky believes an invasion is unlikely to happen. Having just finished his master’s degree in philosophy, Valentin is excited to begin a different stage in his life. 

But if Russia invades, “I have no idea what I would do,” he says. Fighting is not an option he is considering. “I would try to flee, but I have no idea which way I would go.” 

Valentin’s mother tries to ignore the current situation. “She believes it will all be fine,” he says, “and maybe that’s the best option, be ignorant of the future.” 

Kharkiv city center during a busy day. Source: Petro Chekal (Instagram: @_writinglight_)

Even though Valentin is not entirely hostile towards Russian culture, he is afraid. “I see the repression in Russia as being comparable to the Soviet Red Terror,” he says, during which up to 200,000 people were executed. 

Yurii adds that much of the Russian population has a favorable view of Stalin, the Soviet dictator who severely oppressed the Ukrainian people. Stalin also starved about 3.5 million of them to death during the Holodomor genocide. 

Being that the Soviet Union is now long gone, Yurii is worried Putin misses this time period. He adds that Putin called the fall of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” 

Dima, originally from Kharkiv and now studying in Germany, is scared for his family back home. His mother, father, 14 year old nephew and grandmother still live in Kharkiv. “My grandmother was alive during the second world war, and if this war breaks out she’ll have to experience another one,” he says.

According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), 57.5% of Ukrainians are ready to put up any kind of resistance, while 37.3% would be ready to take up arms. If war breaks out Dima, among many other Karkhiv residents, would consider taking part in the war. he has, after all, received military training before.

But still – “nobody knows if there is a war, not even the Russians – only the Russian government has that information,” says Dima. Even though the Russian invasion is something most individuals would rather ignore, it proves difficult. 

“I hope nothing happens,” says Valentin. But like many Ukranians living close to the border, they turn to alternative realities to cope. “To avoid panicking I just believe it won’t happen.”

One of Kharkiv’s sprawling parks during summer. Source: Pietro Chekal (Instagram: @_writinglight_)

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