President Zelensky toured Kharkiv yesterday in his first public appearance outside the Ukrainian capital since the start of Russia’s invasion.
He visited troops on the front lines in a show of defiance as the Ukrainian military continues to try to push Russian forces back towards the border 20 miles away. “You risk your lives for us all and for our country,” he said, distributing commendations and gifts.
Later he praised the nation’s soldiers on the Telegram messaging app. “I feel boundless pride in our defenders,” he wrote. “Every day, risking their lives, they fight for Ukraine’s freedom.”
Kharkiv has been battered by heavy bombardment since the start of March. The situation has become calmer in recent weeks but Russia continues its assault from afar and explosions could be heard across Ukraine’s second city after Zelensky’s visit.
On Thursday a five-month-old baby was among nine people killed at a metro station by Russian shelling. Seventeen others were injured. The northern neighbourhood of Saltivka, eight miles from the city centre, is bearing the brunt of the artillery attacks.
Russian troops still hold about a third of territory within the Kharkiv region, but about 5 per cent has been retaken by the city’s defenders.
The front line in the battle has been pushed back towards the border. In the city itself, businesses are beginning to reopen, trams are running again and residents are starting to emerge from their basement shelters and underground metro stations and return to their homes.
During a tour of ruined residential buildings in the city Zelensky discussed reconstruction plans with local officials. More than 2,000 apartment buildings across Kharkiv have been destroyed since the Russians invaded on February 24.
The Ukrainian leader later said he had fired the local head of the SBU security service on the trip for not working to “defend” the city. “He did not work on the defence of the city from the first days of the full-scale war, but thought only about himself,” Zelensky said in his daily national address. “On which motives? The law enforcement officers will figure it out.”