NORTH OF KHARKIV, Ukraine – The 59-year-old air defense unit soldier had just started his shift in a snowy forest near the Russian border early Tuesday when a bright light shone on the horizon.
He grabbed his radio and barked an urgent message: “I'm seeing flashes and hearing outgoing booms!”
The soldier knew that they were ballistic missiles fired from inside Russia. But he didn't have time to stop them – and there was no weapon in his unit's arsenal that could have prevented it.
Seconds later, the rockets struck Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, destroying a residential building and destroying other civilian infrastructure. Ten people, including a child, were killed and dozens more injured. Some victims were trapped under the rubble for hours.
“I knew they were going to fly and hit people and there was nothing I could do to stop that,” said the soldier, who spoke on the condition that he be identified by his call sign “Grandpa,” in accordance with military rules could. The pain of this helplessness, he said, was a feeling he “couldn’t put into words.”
The Post's chief Ukraine correspondent, Siobhán O'Grady, was at the scene of a Russian missile attack on a residential building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on January 23. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)
Russia attacked Kharkiv, just 30 kilometers south of the border, three times on Tuesday: first at 4 a.m., then just after 7 a.m. and again around 10 p.m. The city's air raid siren sounded twice, warning civilians to seek shelter only after the explosions began.
The barrages, which Ukraine said were combined attacks launched in part from S-300 systems inside Russia, were the latest in a series of recent attacks that appear to have been aimed in part at exploiting vulnerabilities in the country's air defense systems to exploit Ukraine. The second of Tuesday's three salvos, which Grandpa witnessed during his shift, was a combined attack that also hit Kiev and the southeastern Dnipro region.
The rocket attacks show that Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to destroy Ukraine rather than give the country an independent, democratic future in the European Union. They also show that Ukraine still does not have enough air defense systems, even after the West equipped Kiev with a range of systems, including NASAMS, Iris-Ts, Gepards, Stingers and more.
The use of such systems came under scrutiny on Wednesday after Russia accused Ukraine of shooting down a military transport plane in nearby Belgorod that Moscow said was carrying dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war. Ukraine has not denied shooting down the plane, but officials said they had not confirmed that there were prisoners of war on board.
For Russia, Kharkiv is one of the easiest targets. The city is so close to the border that even modern air defense systems, such as the U.S.-developed Patriot that Ukraine deploys in Kiev, would have difficulty responding in a timely manner to high-speed missiles moving on a ballistic trajectory. Due to the proximity to the Russian launch sites, the time between takeoff and landing is typically less than a minute.
Fears of a second Russian occupation are growing in northeastern Ukraine
Grandpa is part of the 113th Territorial Defense Brigade, a unit tasked with protecting the skies north of the city of Kharkiv. To do this, his unit relies on a Soviet-era ZU-23-2, a captured weapon confiscated from Russian troops they left behind during their retreat from the nearby town of Kupyansk in September 2022.
The mobile system, mounted on the back of a truck, can only hit targets moving below the speed of sound. This includes the growing number of drones launched from Russia every day, such as Iranian-made Shaheds and explosive FPVs, or first-person view drones. Some of these weapons are aimed at troops stationed north of the city, an area that Russia stormed and occupied in early 2022. Others are directed against Kharkiv itself, which Russia was never able to take.
Recently, however, Moscow appears to be once again setting its sights on Kharkiv and the surrounding region, which it abandoned during Ukraine's lightning-fast counteroffensive in September 2022.
Makhno, 38, commander of the air defense unit, said that over the past month, a growing number of diversionary groups – consisting of five to 20 Russian soldiers each – have crossed the border into Ukraine to stoke fear in border communities to detain prisoners who may have information about Ukrainian troop movements and shift changes.
Russian forces have also repeatedly attacked the city while strengthening their troop positions from other directions, including east of Kupiansk. In the past four weeks alone, rocket attacks in Kharkiv destroyed two hotels and damaged hundreds of buildings. The first strike on Tuesday also hit a gas pipeline and a school. Attacks like these are the reason students who attend school in person in this city now do so in makeshift classrooms built in underground train stations.
Kharkiv subways are now classrooms as classes begin under Russian attack
“We have great fears and anxieties,” said Larisa Kulakova, the main specialist in preschool education in Kharkiv. “The city is being bombed more and more.”
On Tuesday afternoon, troops from the brigade's air defense unit paced a military position between Kharkiv and the border – dressed in white snowsuits to blend in with the wintry landscape – preparing to respond to further attacks. One stood in the back of the truck, peering through binoculars for incoming drones and missiles.
“The situation is constantly tense,” said Makhno, whose call sign is a reference to a famous Ukrainian revolutionary who died in 1934.
Belgorod, in western Russia, was hit hard as Ukraine retaliated over the airstrikes
Delays in arms deliveries from partners in Europe and the United States have left his troops, who have been fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014, behind, he said. “The world is wasting time deciding: should we give them weapons or not?” Makhno said. “We have to stay two steps ahead of the enemy.”
Another soldier, who goes by the call sign Strilok (Rifleman), said that if rockets were headed toward the city, “we definitely feel like there's nothing we can do.” The best way to stop the attacks, he said, would be this Use of a US High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to hit launch sites in Russia. But Washington, which provided the systems, has banned Ukraine from using them to attack targets inside Russia – a restriction Strilok called “absurd.”
As Makhno's troops searched the skies, rescuers at the end of the street in Kharkiv waded through the remains of the apartment complex hit by a rocket that morning. Worried friends and relatives of the missing stood there hoping for miracles in sub-zero temperatures and clouds of smoke.
In Kharkiv, ambulance crews wait for the shelling – and for a new year of war
In neighboring blocks, survivors dragged their belongings from their destroyed homes as volunteers arrived to help board up the windows. Sasha Terekhovich, 33, woke up to the first round of strikes on Tuesday and moved from her bedroom to the living room couch – a decision that she says saved her life. One of the next round's rockets hit the building next to her and blew out all the windows in her house.
“If something happens in Kharkiv, it will impact,” she said.
On Tuesday around 12:30 p.m., a 60-year-old man named Vyacheslav sat in front of the rubble of the apartment block and waited for news about his relatives. His wife's ex-husband, Valera, and Valera's wife, Yulia, lived on the first floor. The two couples are close; they share children and grandchildren. In the first 17 minutes after the attack, they could see that Valera and Yulia's phone numbers were still showing as “online” in messaging apps. Then they separated.
Hours passed with no news. Vyacheslav's stepson searched for his father in nearby hospitals, without success. Viacheslav's wife requested an update. “They’re digging through the rubble,” he told her.
Hours later, workers pulled a body from the rubble and put it in a black plastic bag. Relatives of the missing gathered. A woman searching for friends on the fourth floor held a lock of hair and an earring as possible clues. Another woman wearing a red hat and jacket told a police officer that her daughter and granddaughter were still missing. She described them and he used her information to connect her to the morgue.
The body in the bag was a woman, said officer Maxim Melnychenko, 43. “It was cooked,” he said. “We couldn’t show them her face because it was too disturbing.”
She is 16. The war in Ukraine has destroyed her city – and her childhood.
As dusk fell, rescue workers, who had previously carefully combed through the rubble looking for survivors, began digging more aggressively. Hours later, violent explosions occurred again in the city. Other civilians were injured. More rescue workers rushed to the scene of the accident.
Once again, the air defense unit north of the city saw that the missiles were heading towards Kharkiv. Again, there was nothing they could do.