Kharkiv Oblast keeps suffering from daily Russian shelling. Borderline and frontline settlements are under attack, and fierce fighting continues in Kupiansk Raion. A threat of missile attacks persists, mostly by S-300 missiles fired from the territory of Russia.
Despite this, residents keep returning to the oblast centre and damaged villages.
Ukrinform talked to Oleh Syniehubov, Head of Kharkiv Oblast Military Administration, about military threats, recovery prospects, speed of demining, the economic situation in the region, the possibility of hybrid education starting from 1 September, and the upcoming heating season.
THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL IN KUPIANSK DIRECTION
- Oleh Vasylovych, let us start with the military situation in the city.
- The terror of civilians on the part of occupiers persists. The night of 6–7 July was, perhaps, the quietest in the frontier area for the past months, yet 15 settlements were shelled anyway. Usually, the number is bigger. This is Bohodukhiv, Chuhuiv, Izium, and Kharkiv Raions. In Kupiansk direction – along the frontline from Masiutivka to Kindrashivka and other settlements located further. It’s a “grey zone” where active hostilities take place. Although the situation is difficult, it is completely under control.
We understand and know clearly which troops are there, whether assault troops or not. Currently, the enemy is trying to reinforce Belgorod direction on its side of the border, i.e., they are building fortifications there. We also continue to strengthen the defence, and at the moment, we focus on Kupiansk direction, as it is the most dangerous.
- Do you know how much enemy manpower is concentrated there?
- It varies. These might be 5 or 20 thousand, but moving to Luhansk Oblast. They “migrate,” rotate, and recover. Therefore, this is not the case where we could say that these are assault troops ready to enter Kupiansk direction. However, enemy assaults take place every day, just like the advances of sabotage and reconnaissance groups.
- How many victims and wounded have been there since the beginning of the invasion?
- Unfortunately, the numbers are rising. As of early July, 2,038 civilians died in Kharkiv Oblast, of which 77 were children. Almost 3,000 people were wounded, including 240 children. I’d also like to point out that we still have temporarily occupied territories – 29 settlements in Kupiansk Raion and a 5–10-kilometre zone in the north, where we can’t get to. The shelling is too intense.
- So, you are talking about the deceased whose bodies are under the rubble?
- Yes. We also know that there are mass burials of our civilians and military personnel there. Perhaps, they are not as large as the ones in Izium, but they exist. We have indicative information about their location in the north.
BUSINESSES NEED SAFETY, LOANS, AND INSURANCE
- How would you characterise the economic situation in the region? Are business owners coming back, and can there be investments now?
- Let’s put it this way, we have some data, and some is truly alarming. We have talked about it with the Minister of Economy. To return, businesses actually need three things. First, safety. Second, access to credit funds. Third, access to insurance from the risks of property destruction or damage due to war. If we can ensure it, businesses will come back.
Regarding foreign investments: we negotiate with international partners. International investors, including from Germany, are ready to come here, particularly to Kharkiv Oblast. This implies that they are willing to invest financial resources, for example, by becoming the founders of the enterprise and thus supporting the development and preventing its closure or creating a new business.
- Philip Morris, one of the top taxpayers, announced the construction of the plant in Lviv Oblast. Manufacturing facilities in our region are suspended.
- But we hope they will come back. We had a conversation with the company management, who assured us that the company would continue its operations here as soon as it was safer. Constructing a new plant does not mean they will stop operations in our oblast altogether and permanently.
- How many Kharkiv businesses relocated?
- In the first several months of the full-scale war, over 80% of enterprises were forced to suspend production. Currently, 65% of them renewed maintaining statistics in the Tax Service. This does not mean they are operating again. They just got in touch and reported their existence. And then we need to consider it closer. Perhaps, small and medium businesses raise fewer questions. The service and trade sectors are returning.
According to the latest data from the Ministry of Economy, 178 companies from Kharkiv Oblast relocated to safer regions under the government programme. Most relocated to Lviv Oblast – 27%, and 16% to Zakarpattia Oblast. Based on the survey conducted by the Private Employers Association public organisation, managers of over 67% of relocated businesses want to restore manufacturing in our oblast after the end of hostilities.
TO RESTORE 70 BUILDINGS AND DORMITORIES BY THE END OF THE YEAR
- Given the current economic situation, how is the Oblast budget filled?
- There are no delays in salary payment or funding for protected articles neither in the oblast centre nor in the raions. The budget filling structure has changed. Its main share now is income tax from military personnel. Certainly, the structure of expenditures changed, too. Their major share is aimed at enhancing the defence potential of the oblast and separate military units.
The budget also allows for planning the recovery. Surely, the scope of such recovery is far from what we would like it to be.
- What is the situation with the reconstruction of the housing fund in the region?
- We plan to restore over 70 buildings this year. This is more than UAH 1.1 billion from the state budget and a certain share from the oblast budget. We are talking about two apartment buildings in Lozova community, one dormitory in Zolochiv community; two dormitories and 15 apartment buildings in Staryi Saltiv community and nine in Izium community; two apartment buildings in Chuhuiv and Balakliia communities; one dormitory and 34 buildings in Derhachi community; two apartment buildings in Rohan community. Draft documentation has been developed and approved for almost thirty facilities, and 16 projects are at the stage of documentation drafting. Right now, amendments are being made to the Regional Programme for Recovery, Development, and Support to Life Support Systems of Kharkiv Oblast During Martial Law. Twenty-seven projects are to be included in this programme.
- How many settlements in Kharkiv Oblast have been completely destroyed? Are there any chances to rebuild them? Because, despite everything, residents want to return to their native places.
- There are destroyed villages that the Russians keep shelling. Certainly, you can’t go there now.
People started receiving compensation, and we had inquiries on whether they could begin reconstruction using the received funds in their settlements. We explain to them that, at this time, we are unable to restore power and water supply, nor any other essential infrastructure, as fields, forests, forest strips and local roads are mined there. So, what will life be like in that reconstructed house?
Unfortunately, there are too many severely damaged settlements. The number is reaching 80. We have already mentioned Masiutivka, Kindrashivka (in Kupiansk Raion). The villages in the direction of Donetsk Oblast are virtually non-existent. However, I would like to note that visually, we cannot determine if a certain house is destroyed completely or only partially. Whether it can be restored may only be confirmed after a relevant examination. This is why these figures are only indicative.
WE MUST TRAIN AT LEAST TWO THOUSAND DEMINERS A YEAR
- What is the pace of oblast territory demining? Who is helping us with it?
- Ninety per cent of work is completed by the State Emergency Services units, military deminers, the State Transport Service and the National Police. The mine density, peculiarities, and circumstances mean that demining is very difficult even in the village of Tsyrkuny, which is part of the Better Than Before government reconstruction project. Many people have not returned yet, so there is no access to private households. In addition, there are areas which are complex in terms of demining.
Recently, Yuliia Svyrydenko, the First Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine and the Minister of Economy, visited us. She is in charge of the demining sector in the government. We have studied existing own capacities. What do we need to do to speed up the pace? First, we must expand the number of trained State Emergency Service employees. We have relevant centres for this. We need to train at least two thousand deminers a year. We want to reach the number of ten thousand, allowing us to move quickly. The Ministry of Education and Science is currently increasing the number of licences while we are already strengthening the material and technical foundation for the training. Second, specialised demining vehicles. Only four of them are working in our oblast. These vehicles are very costly, and, unfortunately, when they encounter a mine, they are brought to a standstill. Such equipment costs nearly a million euros, so its repair is quite expensive too. We’ve talked to Ms Svyrydenko about the possibility of making a local analogue, which will be considerably cheaper and run between 4 and 5 million hryvnias. We are hopeful that such specialised vehicles will be manufactured in Kharkiv Oblast.
- Is this still a theory, or do you have a sample?
- We have one. And this sample has already been tested. Emergency Service units are satisfied with it, as we believe it is better than foreign equipment. The experts are currently finalising this model.
We now need to certify it. We want to buy the first such machine using the funds from the oblast budget. Then, it might be purchased at the expense of the state programme and through centralized procurement.
- How do international organisations help with demining?
- There are more than ten of them. All of them are working, but they are still trying to have a closer look. Why? Because in recent decades, no country in the world has had such a demining experience as we have in Ukraine. After all, the territory is mined with the most advanced types of weapons. These are plastic mines that are hard to detect. Even the leading companies possessing relevant skills are now upgrading their equipment by producing experimental drones, in particular.
I would like to note that we strive to involve international experts in demining of agricultural lands. They already work on some fields. The primary focus for them is small farms that cultivate an area of approximately 35 to 50 hectares. This is because major agricultural holdings have their own resources and can address many issues themselves.
WE HAVE MONEY FOR COMPENSATION, BUT COMMITTEES MUST WORK FASTER
- In early July, the first one hundred residents were allocated compensation under the e-Restoration programme. How is this process going?
- Kharkiv Oblast is the leader in terms of data collection and processing, i.e., recording damage and applications from people. But we must also become leaders in terms of consideration of these applications. The committees of local governments consider them, so now we have to arrange their operation so that they can allocate compensation effectively, objectively and as promptly as possible. We can talk about objective and subjective reasons for preventing this from happening. Objective: changes were made to the quality composition of committees. They were supposed to include representatives of public organisations. Therefore, some time was needed for executive committees to approve everything. We had to complete some administrative procedures. There are also subjective factors. This is when a person files an application, and the committee comes for an inspection, but the applicant is away. This is because the applicant is a displaced person who lives outside Kharkiv Oblast and does not intend to come back in the near future. People should take this into account. Certainly, they don’t need to stay home 24/7, but they should ensure access to the home, premises, and estate. Therefore, the process is really complicated, but it is time to pick up speed.
- Another burning question: why do residents of liberated territories keep receiving utility bills from power and gas companies for the services they have not been providing during the occupation? People are indignant.
- Several months ago, this matter was considered by the Oblast Coordination Headquarters. At our initiative, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted a resolution banning the collection of such “debts.” This is an operational decision. But then we need to do something with this “debt”: either recognise it as unjustified and write it off or conduct resettlements for those people who have already paid these bills. This matter is currently under consideration, and I am confident that it will be resolved in the near future. After all, we all know about the situation with electricity in Izium, Derhachi Raion, and other settlements where occupiers laid their power lines from the territory of the Russian ederation, and this electricity was counted by our domestic meters. The same situation is observed with gas in Kupiansk Raion.
OVER 500 EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS REQUIRE QUALITY SHELTERS
- On 7 July, the Oblast Defence Council allowed offline education from 1 September, provided the institution had a shelter. On the one hand, the shelter is a must, but on the other hand, there is very little time to get down there. As you have repeatedly noted, S-300 reaches us in 30–40 seconds.
- As of now, we can consider offline education in some settlements. For instance, in Krasnohrad and Lozova Raions, there were no such facts, as S-300 does not reach these settlements. It is a different story with cruise missiles, particularly with the time to get down to the shelter.
By its decision, the Defence Council allows educational institutions to hold hybrid classes. Most timeis spent on online classes, while practical classes are held offline at least once a week. Both schools and universities may adopt this approach.
Now, note! A shelter does not mean painted basement premises. Shelters must comply with state construction norms and withstand certain loads. It may be necessary to pour an additional concrete layer.
- Do we even have appropriate shelters in schools?
- We have made one in the oblast Obdarovanist lyceum (in Kharkiv –author). Therefore, the principal of this educational institution will decide on the curriculum and form of education. The village of Pisochyn (located in the suburbs of Kharkiv – author) has a school with a shelter that meets all the standards. However, the total need across the oblast is 525 shelters. This includes pre- school, school, vocational and higher education institutions. This is what we need to build.
- And what if parents are against offline or hybrid education and don’t let their children go to school?
- Online education must be available at any rate. But I would like to note that we did have hybrid education back last year in some schools in Kharkiv and the oblast. We observed it. I believe that the hybrid form has the potential to justify itself. This is why the Defence Council made this decision.
Now, all we need to think of are shelters. This is the priority for several years to come.
PROTECTED BORDERS, AIR DEFENCE AND TEACHING THE POPULATION
- Given that we don’t know how long the war will last, and Kharkiv Oblast is located so close to the border with the RF, what does the security situation should look like? Ideally, in theory...
- Securely protected border with fortifications. State-of-the-art air defence. And a system of shelters and the adequate reaction of the population to the sound of an air raid alarm, which means we need to teach the population. And we must live with it, come to terms with it. These are the conditions we are in. There should be no new buildings without parking spaces, as this is the safest shelter in the building. If the buildings were constructed long ago and don’t have a parking area, we must provide another shelter. By the way, there is an anti-radiation shelter in Pervomaisk nearby the location recently hit by Iskander missiles. Yet, we are still analysing whether an air raid alarm was on.
The flip side of the coin is that this missile was launched close to the collision line, so the arrival time is quite short (it takes 23 seconds to reach a minimum range of 50 km – author). We already had such a case with the Iskander-M missile, which hit a house on Akhiiezeriv Street in Kharkiv in August 2022. Our air defence failed to notice this missile because it is ultra-modern, flies low, and gains height only before hitting the target.
Then again, the air defence systems we had at the start of the invasion and the ones we have now are completely different. And we do not stop there, we expand and improve them.
- The country has lived through an extremely difficult heating season due to missile attacks. How are we preparing the oblast for the upcoming season, both in terms of steady provision of utility services and ensuring security?
- First, we adhere to the established plan and definite indicators provided by the Cabinet of Ministers. The second aspect is that we must restore as much as possible of everything that was damaged, and we’re also putting in considerable effort in this field. I will not name any enterprises or facilities now. Although believe me, I know the times of contract signing, equipment delivery, installation, and commissioning. And third, we need to protect what we are restoring. We need to protect it at a new level, better than last season. Because the lives of our energy workers, utility workers, who died, were injured, but did their work under shelling, are behind the fact that we have passed the heating season.
Sometimes, we counted the minutes until the point of no return, when it was no longer possible to start Kharkiv’s power system and, as a result, the heating system as well. We did not announce it to avoid spreading panic. But we did unique things. We express our profound respect and gratitude
towards our utility services. The heating system in Kharkiv was launched eight times, and the CHP-5 was started anew despite it being impossible according to the algorithm, as it must be launched once per season. When the primary gas pipeline was shut down, leaving CHP-5 without gas, the heating plant operated in emergency mode for nearly two days on fuel oil. Sure, it is possible, but it is extremely difficult. People worked hard for several days on end without rest to restore everything.
- Finally, I want to ask about Skovoroda National Museum, which was destroyed by the Russians in May last year. When will some preservation work finally be carried out?
- This is a matter of efficiency. To carry out conservation works there, we need UAH 10 million, which is a considerable amount. Because preservation doesn’t just mean putting up a canopy to keep the rain out, so to speak, it is a comprehensive set of measures. We currently have several proposals, and we are working on them. We also work with international partners and donors willing to assist in restoring the museum and other cultural objects damaged due to Russian aggression. Hence, if the project is implemented, the object will be re-preserved, so allocated budget funds would be wasted. We will take conservation measures before winter if we fail to attract donor funds.
Yuliia Bairachna, Kharkiv
Photo by Yurii Demianenko