Experts say Kharkiv, 40 km from the Russian border, could be the first city to face an attack.
Kharkiv, Ukraine – Mykola Levchencko, a 45-year-old software engineer, is always prepared for an invasion; next to his desk is a full set of body weapons and a custom rifle.
Levchencko, a local in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, is in many ways a product of its surroundings.
The city is a thriving technological hub, with more than 45,000 resident IT specialists. But with only 40 km (25 miles) to the border with Russia, it has the prospect of being drawn into the ongoing conflict.
Tensions have skyrocketed in recent weeks, with Russia gathering more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, raising fears that the country could face a potential invasion, with Kharkiv as some experts suggest, a potential primary target.
Olga Shapoval is the head of Kharkiv IT Cluster, an NGO located in a trendy joint loft space overlooking the city. The NGO has been supporting the city’s technology industry since 2015.
“We now call Kharkiv the Silicon Valley of Ukraine,” she said, after seeing the industry double over the past seven years.
Shapoval describes the current situation as frightening for her and her family, but says she has not yet reached “panic mode”.
Since 2014, she has learned to live with the constant threat of an invasion, but now with increased tension, she says many professionals are starting to work on a “Plan B”.
The success of the city’s IT industry can be attributed to many factors, including its long history as an engineering hub, a wealth of education and research facilities, and the low cost of living, making it an attractive investment for international companies that looking for young talent. .
It is also a result of joint efforts by organizations such as the Kharkiv IT Cluster to rebuild confidence in global companies that were shocked by the events of 2014 when the conflict in eastern Ukraine began.
In the center of Kharkiv the atmosphere is calm.
Families skate on a temporary ice rink, and international students mingle in the countless cafes along the main square.
Satyan (23) and Mukul, 21 students from India, describe their mood as “chilled” but are aware of the increased tension.
In the event of an invasion, most international IT specialists and students will be able to relocate.
But for locals like Levchencko, it’s not an option.
“Our families are very nervous,” he said. “We do not have the financial ability to move with our children.”
The survival of the city’s IT sector is also essential for the country. Shapoval estimates that about 200,000 local jobs depend on the IT industry in Kharkiv and it is a major source of tax revenue for Ukraine. The local industry also supports much of the military’s IT and cyber security infrastructure.
According to sources in the local, territorial forces, a potential invasion would most likely Russian troops first surround the city. This leaves the prospect of a long drawn-out siege, which could deter the countless international education, finance and healthcare companies in Kharkiv.
Levchencko is also an army reservist, training with other locals between the ages of 30 and 65 every week in preparation for defending his city against a possible attack.
Recently, he has seen many of his fellow IT professionals join his unit. He estimates that it will only take him five minutes to be ready to fight on any given workday.