The successful counteroffensive of the Ukrainian armed forces in the Kharkiv region was not just the result of good tactical planning, but also a consequence of pro-Ukrainian sentiment at society level, determined by the country’s history, its invaluable cultural legacy and the positive experience of the first two phases of fighting off the Russian aggression.
The three battles of Kharkiv
The Ukrainian offensive of September is the third major battle for the Kharkiv region since the war started. In the first phase, the fighting took place in the very capital that gave the region its name, which is Ukraine’s second-largest city. Some of the districts of this region were reduced to rubble. Following a heroic stand, resistance forces managed to repel the Russian assault on the city. Russia was forced to withdraw its military troops over April-May.
In the second battle of Kharkiv, which took place in June, the Ukrainian army continued to liberate some settlements in the region. However, at the time everyone focused on the intense fighting taking place in Donbas, where Russia had regrouped most of its forces. At one point, neither the Ukrainian media nor the Russian one covered the developments in Kharkiv, reporting instead on operations taking place in Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhya (old Donbass), or further south, in Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa.
Every now and then, the Russian media reiterated various propaganda narratives about the inhabitants of Kharkiv allegedly seeking to unite with Russia.
Kharkiv: an iconic region for the Soviets that fought back pro-Russian separatism
Kharkiv holds a special place in the hearts of Ukrainians, although much like neighboring Donbas, it borders Russia. Ever since the start of the Russian aggression in this region in 2014 and to this day, Kharkiv evolved in a very different direction compared to the two regions of Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk.
After the street protests of 2013-2014 in Kyiv, known as Euromaidan, Russia launched the operation it had planned to the last detail over the course of several years, namely the proclamation of separatist republics in the north, east and south of Ukraine, with a view to pushing for the federalization of the country, with the exception of Crimea, which was annexed in 2014.
At the time, Russia’s flag was flown in Sevastopol, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and many other cities. Unlike Donbas and Crimea, in Kharkiv, the separatist movement was met with strong resistance both from the local elites as well as the population. This was, in fact, the first major political defeat for Russia.
It also marked a personal failure for Putin, who for years had criticized the decision of the founder of the USSR, Vladimir Lenin, to provide Soviet republics with a significant degree of autonomy, which led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the proclamation of Ukraine’s independence. In his many speeches, Putin kept insisting that the first capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine was Kharkiv, a city captured by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The Kremlin considers Kharkiv a symbol of communization / the occupation of free Ukraine. The failure of 2014 was truly hard to stomach by Putinists.
Kharkiv – the cradle of Ukrainian statehood and a symbol of independence
At the same time, Kharkiv is city of special importance for the history and culture of Ukraine. It was here, in the capital of Sloboda Ukraine, which is what this historical-ethnographic region is called (from “Slobozhanshchyna”, which translates as “land of the free” and of the “free steppes”, a territory you come across just as you leave Russia) that the first literary work was published in the modern Ukrainian language, written by Ivan Kotliarevsky.
At the end of the 19th century, Kotliarevsky published the poem Eneida (drawing on an adaption of Virgil’s Aeneid) which dealt with nostalgia for the Cossack past and the freedom of the people. The language of this poem is very close to modern Ukrainian.
After 2014, Kotliarevsky and Kharkiv were turned into political symbols, promoted by the Ukrainian media to illustrate the civilization divide between Ukraine and Russia. For instance, in August 2021, the official publication of the Ukrainian Parliament, “Golos Ukrainy” (The Voice of Ukraine) wrote: “the father of contemporary Ukrainian literature, Ivan Kotliarevsky, wrote his legendary poem, “Eneida” (1798) at a time when the founder of the modern Russian language, Aleksandr Pushkin, had not yet been born (1799)”. Moreover, the regions of Kharkiv and Poltava provided the modern version of the Ukrainian language, which was considered the norm, namely the literary language.
The region of Kharkiv: Russified cities surrounded by Ukrainian villages
The structure of the Kharkiv region is very specific. Russian is spoken particularly in large cities, while villages have preserved an unaltered Ukrainian. Unlike the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where widespread industrialization at the end of World War II brought Russian speakers in large numbers who settled around the new plants, Kharkiv does have a historical community of Ukrainian ethnics, with their specific roots and century-old traditions. Obviously, this community was deeply affected by the Great Famine and the events of World War II, yet its ethnic core endured.
This may account for the more prominent sympathy of the people of Kharkiv towards the Ukrainian Armed Forces, compared to the people of Donbas, some of whom seem to be more willing to come to terms to Russia’s separatist projects.
According to a study carried out by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 85% of Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine have a negative attitude towards Russia and only 4% have a positive one. Sociologists also speak of a constant level in the positive attitudes of the people of Kharkiv, particularly the Russian-speaking population, towards Ukrainian authorities. Most Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine are disappointed with Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine’s territory and to bomb civilian infrastructure objectives.
Nationalist movements in Kharkiv
After the annexation of Crimea, a series of nationalist movements started to take shape. The Ukrainian Armed Forces comprise a local subunit of the “Azov. Kharkiv” regiment”.
In 2017, Ukraine was rocked by a huge scandal revolving around nationalist and Nazi slogans chanted by fans of the football club Metalist-1925 in Kharkiv during a match in Kyiv. What seemed impossible in other eastern regions became reality in the case of Kharkiv, which stands at odds with Donbas in social and cultural terms.
At the same time, in the 2019 presidential election, the region of Kharkiv followed the same trend as other regions in Ukraine: 86.88% of people voted for Volodymyr Zelensky while only 11.17% voted for Petro Poroshenko. Sociological studies also reveal that starting 2019, Zelensky’s approval rating remains high in Kharkiv, and the war did nothing but consolidate positive attitudes towards the president.
Culture and identity, the tenets of modern warfare
The successful counteroffensive of the Ukrainian Armed Forces shows just how much social and cultural elements and the attitudes of the population can weigh in a defensive war. Under these circumstances, there is a decreasing number of enemy collaborators inside the civilian population, and the army’s morale is much higher when troops feel the support of the population and are received as liberators.
Another key contributing factor is the capacity of states to create political symbols based on historical and cultural ones. Moscow regarded Kharkiv as an outpost of the Russian world, whereas Kyiv considered the capital of Sloboda Ukraine as the cradle of Ukrainian civilization, which “gave birth to Ukrainian literature long before the Russian one ever saw the light of day”. This war of symbols and narratives may very well tip the scales of the war. The winners of this “war” will clearly have the upper hand on the battlefield as well.