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President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in a Washington Post interview on Jan. 20 that he believes Russia could occupy Ukraine's eastern city of Kharkiv and thus start a large-scale war.
"If Russia decides to enhance their escalation, of course they are going to do this on those territories where historically there are people who used to have family links to Russia," said Zelensky. "Kharkiv, which is under Ukrainian government control, could be occupied."
Kharkiv is Ukraine's second-largest city, with a population of 1.4 million.
Zelensky's remarks contrast sharply with his televised address to the Ukrainian public on Jan. 19, in which he assured his citizens that the situation was "under control," and that the threat of a full-scale invasion was no higher than it had been during the last eight years of war with Russia, which invaded Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and parts of Donbas in 2014.
"These risks have long existed. They didn’t increase. What increased is the craze (in the news). Our land is not being under attack now — but your nerves are. They’re trying to make you feel anxiety all the time," Zelensky said on Jan. 19, a far cry from his remarks to the Washington Post the next day.
When asked by the Washington Post if U.S. President Joe Biden had given Ukraine enough military assistance to protect the country from Russia, Zelensky said no. He did however acknowledge that support from the Biden administration was "stronger than it was before."
On Jan. 19, Biden admitted during a press conference that the Western response to Russia would likely be less severe in the case of a "minor incursion" into Ukraine. Zelensky responded on Twitter, writing that there was "no such thing as minor incursions," without directly addressing Biden.
Biden rowed back on his comments the next day, saying that any Russian units moving across Ukrainian border would be an invasion, and provoke a response.
Fears of a further Russian invasion of Ukraine have been building for months, as Russia gradually massed troops and military equipment near Ukraine's borders, currently numbering an estimated 122,000 men.
Taras Chmut, head of the Ukrainian Military Center think-tank, told the Kyiv Independent that a large-scale escalation involving the capture of Kharkiv, among other key targets, seemed possible.
"We can see concrete intellegence which shows signs of a possible escalation of the war into a full-scale phase, which could include the occupation of more territory," he said.
Chmut added that any Russian territorial occupation would be made difficult by widespread guerilla resistance.
"It's one thing to destroy Ukraine's military and governance structures, but it's an altogether different matter to neutralise every man or woman who is ready to resist."
"There will be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of them."
Meanwhile, Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov called for calm, saying that there was "no cause for concern" and that he would not allow any outside force to take the city.
"Anyone who seeks to capture Kharkiv must understand that not only every Kharkivite, but also every Ukrainian will rise to defend our beloved city."