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Target Kharkiv: City exemplifies Ukraine’s turn to the West

In this handout photo released by Ukrainian Emergency Service, a burnt car is seen in front of a damaged City Hall building, in Kharkiv
Ukrainian Emergency Service via Associated Press

A Russian missile attack in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv this week presented a jarring picture — a large building, a few cars, some pedestrians, suddenly engulfed in fire and smoke. Why was Kharkiv, known in Ukraine as an academic town, targeted in this way, rather than cities with more military value? One answer is Kharkiv’s recent transition from a town long considered “Russian” to one that reflects more Western and American ideals.

Since becoming a professor, I have been to Ukraine dozens of times, and on many of those trips, I have had the chance to visit Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city.

It’s a university town, known as “Science City” during the former Soviet years. About a quarter of its population are students, and a quarter more have ties to the city’s academic and research institutions. Much of the city revolves around academics, science, and study. Kharkiv’s sister city in the United States is Cincinnati, but to me, it always had the urban “college town” feel of Boston.

The building that was bombed was the administration center for the Kharkiv region. It looks out over Freedom Square, which is the largest public square in Ukraine and, perhaps, Europe. I have been inside that building a dozen times, and I have walked by it even more. My favorite ice cream store was just around the corner. There is absolutely no military or strategic value to that building.

So, why the vicious attack?

Kharkiv had always been a “Russian” town. Until 2014, when the fighting began in Donbass and Russia annexed Crimea, Kharkiv’s economy was directly tied to Russia’s. Most exports traveled East, and Kharkiv was a regular tourist destination for wealthy Russians traveling West. Everyone in Kharkiv speaks Russian, and for those born in the region, Russian probably is what they spoke first. The city is only 30 miles from the Russian border, and in the morning, most taxi drivers have their radios tuned to Russian stations. My friends in western Ukraine, who speak Ukrainian fluently, often complained about the grammatical errors in Kharkiv-prepared materials.

But that has changed in the last five years.

Kharkiv has begun to look to the West, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kharkiv’s youth grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Their world, and its possibilities, stretches well beyond anything their parents or grandparents could imagine. You can see this in Kharkiv’s growing tech community. Tech-based businesses are an important part of Ukraine’s economy and, as an academic center, they play a greater role in Kharkiv’s life. Just a month ago, Ukraine’s minister of education visited Kharkiv to promote entrepreneurship in Kharkiv’s universities, meeting with university presidents in a newly renovated American-style incubator space in the heart of the city.

In other words, Kharkiv is no longer Russian.

The belief that you can shape your own future — build your own business, compete globally with others — is now a part of how Kharkiv sees its place in the world.

New businesses, based on university technology, look to develop products for sale in the West. American and European investors and partners see new opportunities in the teams that are creating them. And people in Kharkiv, who went by Russian names, now insist you refer to them by the Ukrainian equivalent.

Now firmly Ukrainian, Kharkiv is also more American, and that may be what threatens Mr. Putin the most.

Charles K. Whitehead is the Myron C. Taylor Alumni Professor of Business Law at Cornell University and Founding Director of the Law, Technology & Entrepreneurship Program at Cornell Tech. He is the only American to receive an honorary doctorate from Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University in Kharkiv.

Tags Civilian casualties civilian targets College town Kharkiv Kharkiv Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism tech industry Ukraine

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