Thousands demonstrate in Kharkiv, Ukraine against the Russian threat | Ukraine-Russia crisis


Thousands of people took to the streets of Ukraine’s second-largest city carrying banners reading ‘Kharkiv is Ukraine’ and ‘Stop Russian aggression’ as the country prepares for a possible military offensive by Russia.

Weeks of diplomacy between the West and Moscow produced no breakthrough after Russia massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders.

Moscow denies intending to attack Ukraine but has demanded security guarantees, including blocking Ukraine’s membership of NATO.

Kharkiv, an eastern industrial city 42 km (26 miles) from the Russian border, has been identified by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a possible Russian target for “occupation” if the situation escalates, although his spokesperson later said he was speaking hypothetically.

On Saturday, protesters in Kharkiv marched between the city’s two main squares in sub-zero temperatures. They sang the national anthem and waved Ukrainian flags, or waved flags of allies who have supported Kiev, including the United States, United Kingdom and European Union.

“People took to the streets to demonstrate that Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city and we will not return it,” Kharkiv resident Nina Kvitko told Reuters news agency.

A Ukrainian flag wrapped around her shoulders, retiree Iryna Gayeva had a simple message as she demonstrated.

“We don’t want Russia,” she told AFP news agency. “I was born in Crimea. That’s enough, they’ve already taken a homeland from me. I grew up here, I live here, my parents are Russian but I don’t want to see occupiers,” she said.

“This is my house, these are my rules.”

Thousands of people took to the streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine, in a procession to demonstrate the patriotic spirit of local residents amid rising tensions with Russia [Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters]

troubles of 2014

Russia seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and began fueling a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, as Russian-backed separatists seized control of two more eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, fears swirled that Kharkiv could be the next domino to fall.

Pro-Moscow protesters attacked the regional administration with Molotov cocktails, as violence broke out with Ukrainian activists.

Eventually, Ukrainian forces managed to keep Kharkiv from breaking out of Kiev’s grip, saving it from being engulfed in a conflict that has claimed 13,000 lives over the past eight years.

And now those protesting are insisting that Russian forces would not be welcome in Kharkiv as Ukrainian patriotism has soared.

“In 2014, it was panic,” recalls Gayeva. “This time there is no panic but anger.”

At his side, Nadia Rynguina is even more categorical.

“The situation has changed, we have an army worthy of the name, we have citizens ready to defend the country,” she said.

In the event of intervention, Yury Shmylyov, 79, warned that “it will not be a walk in the park” for the Russian army.

“In 2014 we were afraid to display a blue and yellow flag here, but now look,” he said, gesturing to the gathered crowd.

A crowd of protesters march down a street waving Ukrainian flags in Kharkiv, UkraineProtesters in Kharkiv marched between the city’s two main squares in sub-zero temperatures [Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters]

‘Constant threat’

Galyna Kuts, a political scientist in Kharkiv and a member of the regional legislature, said Zelenskyy’s warning of a potential “occupation” was nerve-wracking.

“Everyone was calling each other asking what to do, where to flee,” she said as she attended the rally.

But after years of “living under the constant threat of invasion”, she insists the people of Kharkiv are prepared for anything.

“People have changed, they know how to survive,” she said.

Oleksandr Gerasimov has refueled and is ready to evacuate his family if necessary.

But the 39-year-old protester insisted he was “calm” as he does not believe Moscow will risk an attack on the reinforced Ukrainian armed forces.

“Russia would suffer intolerable losses,” he said.

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