Resistance by Kharkiv’s vastly outnumbered defenders has infuriated Vladimir Putin, as Askold Krushelnycky discovers at the scene of a cruel attack on brave Ukrainian rescue workers

Askold Krushelnycky

The Independent

April 5, 2024


Ukraine’s second-largest city has been rocked by a “double tap” drone strike in which a first wave of missiles fired at residential buildings was followed by another attack timed to hit rescuers.

An Iranian-made Shahed drone slammed into a street yards from a building that had been hit an hour previously, exploding near firefighters and ambulance crews who were helping the injured and searching for survivors still under rubble.

Three firefighters were killed in the attack early on Thursday – two instantly and a third while being transported to hospital. A woman living in one of the targeted buildings was killed, and a dozen more were injured.

The death of one of the firefighters was witnessed by his son, who was in the same crew. He was seen falling to his knees and crying while other rescue workers tried to console him.

“It shouldn’t have been a surprise because we deal with Russian inhumanity all the time, but nobody was expecting that missile to come in,” said one of the surviving firefighters, Yevhen. “It’s pure barbarity.”

Kharkiv has been pounded almost daily by missiles and drones since Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with many civilian buildings deliberately targeted.

Resistance by the city’s vastly outnumbered and outgunned defenders has infuriated Vladimir Putin, and Russian attacks on the city appear driven by revenge rather than military strategy.

In recent weeks, the city and the wider Kharkiv region have faced relentless attacks on energy infrastructure and there have been electricity blackouts with power being rationed for businesses.

Residents lose track of the constant air-raid sirens, and few follow the advice to hide underground as doing so would condemn them to a subterranean life.

The “double tap” term was often used to describe the practice of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces, aided by his Russian military allies, to lure rescue workers to a scene with an initial strike and then to hit them with a second missile using the same coordinates.

Iryna Kotenkov, 53, said there was an extra level of malevolence in the attack on the three-storey apartment block, where she lives with her husband, Vitaly, 48, and daughter Alexandra, 21.

Her street lay strewn with rubble, smashed roofing and broken glass, and Ms Kotenkov spoke to The Independent wearing whatever clothes and slippers she could grab from the wreckage of her home.

“Around 2am we were in bed – awake, because we were woken by the first building that was hit not far away. Then after some minutes we got a message warning that more missiles were heading in our direction.

“One missile hit our neighbour’s apartment. My daughter was shouting ‘Mama are you alive?’ and we were so relieved that she was alive.”

She said Vitaly went to the roof and saw some of the building was on fire.

Ms Kotenkov continued: “My daughter called the emergency services and my husband and other men from our building got water in buckets or anything else and they managed to put out much of the fire before the fire brigade arrived and put out the rest of the flames.”

She said there were so many rescuers and residents milling about that they were slowed down in leaving it.  “I’m sure that’s what saved us because then that second drone hit not far from the entrance. If we’d been on the street when it exploded, we would have been victims like those other brave poor men.”

Ms Kotenkov said an elderly neighbour who lived alone was buried under rubble but dug out and taken to hospital, badly injured but still alive.

Ms Kotenkov’s home is uninhabitable and her family will now stay with friends in another part of the city. She and other residents were waiting for rescue workers to tell them when it was safe to venture inside the ruins to get some belongings.

Major Illia Yevlash of Ukraine’s air force said that Kharkiv’s proximity to the Russian border means there is little time to detect and respond to drones or missiles.

“A large group of Shaheds was spotted today around where I am,” he said. “About 10 attacked Kharkiv Oblast from Russia and headed directly towards the city.

“A little later, another group of Shaheds was also spotted coming from Mykolaiv Oblast [in southern Ukraine] and heading to Kharkiv Oblast.”

He said 11 of 20 drones were shot down, and added: “We see this cynical tactic of the enemy as they continue to launch attacks involving various types of weapons, including guided bombs and drones, to put pressure on the civilian population.

“This cannot be anything other than psychological pressure, as such attacks serve absolutely no [military] purpose, but rather target civilian infrastructure and civilians.”

An army source, who did not want to be named, speculated that Russian forces are targeting places away from the frontline in order to distract Ukrainian defences and make Kyiv’s forces there more vulnerable.

A bitter political standoff in the United States Congress has for months blocked the transfer of American military aid to Ukraine, including the air defence systems and ammunition vital to stave off Russian aerial attacks.

The US is by far the largest provider of military and other aid enabling Kyiv to resist Mr Putin’s plans to conquer the country. Ukraine’s other western supporters, including Britain, have ramped up efforts to supply Ukraine but have a long way to go before they can make up the US shortfall.

Aid is being blocked by right-wing Republican politicians in the House of Representatives who side with Putin admirer, Donald Trump. But in recent days there have been signs the leader of the Republicans in the House is preparing to defy Mr Trump and lift the block on aid to Ukraine.

Maj Yevlash said Ukraine needs more sophisticated air defence systems such as US-manufactured Patriots. German-made Gepards – anti-aircraft self-propelled radar stations and guns – have also proved highly effective and more are needed.

Ms Kotenkov said she and her family and friends have vowed to remain in the city despite the Russian attacks. “I was born in Kharkiv and I will never leave it,” she said. “And the same goes for enough other people to ensure the Russians will never take this city.”