Russia and Ukraine: the fierce battle inside Kharkiv’s last line of defense

Ukraine鈥檚 second largest city, Kharkiv, has been the constant target of Russian attacks for three weeks. The BBC鈥檚 Quentin Sommerville and cameraman Darren Conway report from the front line as Ukrainian troops continue to repel the enemy advance.

We entered the house where the back door used to be. Now there is only a curtain moving in the icy wind. The long-vanished owners could see the rich farmland north of Kharkiv from here, but much of that land is also unrecognizable.

In the garage, next to an abandoned skateboard, are a dozen empty boxes of some of the best anti-tank weapons in the world. A dead Russian soldier lies face down in the front garden.

The house has become a frontline base, and the used boxes are an indication that the soldiers here have fought for their lives: a fight for Ukraine鈥檚 independence.

We have gained exceptional access to the Ukrainian military which, after three weeks of heavy fighting, stands firm on the outskirts of Kharkiv, preventing Russian forces from capturing Ukraine鈥檚 second largest city.

constant bombing

鈥淒o you want to go further?鈥 asks Yuri, a commander of the Ukrainian army鈥檚 22nd Motorized Infantry Battalion, pointing to the wreckage of two Russian armored personnel carriers and the shattered pieces of two of their tanks.

The battalion was reconstituted in 2014 after Russia invaded Crimea and backed Donbas separatists.

鈥淭hey used drones, planes, attack helicopters, everything,鈥 says Yuri, as Russian shells are heard rumbling, hitting nearby roads and apartment blocks.

The area of 鈥嬧媋n attack in Kharkiv
The site of a Russian Grad rocket attack (multiple rockets fired in rapid succession) on a residential neighborhood.

The Russians have continued to attack and have been repelled many times. In his frustration at missing his entry, they bombard the city day and nightwhich was once home to 1.4 million people.

The ground is churned and the thick mud sucks the boots. A glance back shows the dilapidated structures of the row of houses we just passed. Suburban gardens have become battlefields as in Europe鈥檚 past.

鈥淭he first three days were the worst. It was raining, we were covered in mud, we looked like pigs,鈥 says Olexander, 44, who is standing nearby.

Next to one of the destroyed armored personnel carriers 鈥 on which its Z marking has already faded 鈥 is a large crater about 6m wide. On the first day of the invasion, February 24, a Russian attack killed six Ukrainian soldiers at this very spot. Many more have died here since then, but official figures have not been released.

A Russian bomb crater in Kharkiv

A green military boot stands on the edge of the crater, a Russian corpse beyond.. A large black crow sits nearby, unperturbed by the roar of shelling and Grad rockets from Russian positions.

The men here can tell you the precise date and time they arrived at the front, which means that if you weren鈥檛 here the first three days, you didn鈥檛 see real combat. 鈥淛ump into the crater if there is more shelling!鈥 says Uri.

鈥淚f they pass through here, they will enter Kharkiv鈥

Constantine, 58, was a pilot in the Ukrainian air force until he retired and became a journalist. He is now back to the front, walking with a limp and using a broken broomstick for support. Russian shrapnel wounded his leg, but he refuses to leave the front.

鈥淭his is the last line of defense for the city, if they pass through here, they will enter Kharkiv. This highway takes you from Russia to the heart of the city,鈥 he says.

Olexander, 44, was fighting in Donbas.

resonates a boom and a buzz as a wire-guided missile flies right overhead. We entered the crater. The shell hits near the road, a gas pipeline bursts into flames.

As we take cover, a recon soldier with a blue helmet ribbon tells us to stay below. Roman is 34 years old, although he jokes that he was 24 when the war started three weeks ago.

He says that the Russians will not show themselves now: 鈥淭hey are chickens. We will respond well and appropriately.鈥 She stops and wants a selfie. We later learned that she transported the bodies of her fallen comrades in her own vehicle from the front lines to the city morgue.

As we leave, Constantine catches something in midair: a thin copper wire, stretching for miles. It served to guide the Russian missile that just passed over our heads.

Waiting for us is Olexander, 44, from the nearby Poltava region. He has been with the unit since its founding and has fought in Donbas.

鈥淭his is much worse,鈥 he says. 鈥淔or the first three days, we couldn鈥檛 understand what was going on. We were lost and could not believe what was happening. But after that we bounce back and we stand strong and we will hold our ground,鈥 she adds.

A residential building damaged by a shelling in Kharkiv

I ask him why he is fighting. She laughs and replies: 鈥淔or a free Ukraine, for my family and for you too. For our independence and for peace.鈥


Yuri, the commander, takes us back to the still inhabited Soviet-era apartment block. Russia says it came to Ukraine to demilitarize the country, but here we see what that means for civilians. A 20-story block is still smoking from a Russian attack, it was two days ago, according to Yuri.

The official number of civilian deaths in Kharkiv stood at 234, including 14 children, as of March 16. The last few days have been tough, as we were reminded in an instant.

A volley of Russian Grad rockets rained down on the neighborhood, hitting just meters away. The soldiers around us had taken cover and were unharmed.

In the same housing complex live the spouses Svitlana and Sasha. Svitlana is 72 years old and welcomes us to her house, saying that they haven鈥檛 spoken to anyone in weeks. 鈥淲e鈥檙e glad you came,鈥 she says.

Svitlana. 72, and her husband sleep two hours a night in her bomb-damaged apartment.

Their building has already been attacked, the back windows are gone and they sleep on couches. They rest for about two hours a night, as the bombardment is relentless. 鈥淲hen it stops, it鈥檚 like spring,鈥 he says.

I ask him if he has a message for Vladimir Putin. 鈥淣o,鈥 she replies firmly. 鈥淚t seems to me that this man has already lost his sanity and is not thinking clearly. Because a sane human cannot do something like that: bomb the elderly, children, kindergartens, schools, hospitals. He wouldn鈥檛 understand what I say.鈥

But later, when I ask him about the men who are not far from his house and who defend the city, he cries. 鈥淵es, I am very grateful to you for protecting your homeland. Resist guys. We will always support them. They are so brave, both the boys and the girls.鈥

a ukrainian soldier

There are still hundreds of thousands of people living in Kharkiv, despite the bombing. If Russia and Ukraine are brothers, as the Kremlin professes, then this is fratricide.

When we leave the neighborhood, much of it is on. Russia鈥檚 fury with this city can be seen and heard. At night, all of Kharkiv is covered in a cloud of smoke, the incessant pounding of weapons continues, but the defenders still keep the enemy away from the city gates.

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