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KYIV: Russia may try to occupy the industrial city of Kharkiv if it takes military action in Ukraine, and this would be the start of a "large-scale war", Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the Washington Post.

Russia has tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine. Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, is the former Soviet republic's second biggest city and lies 42 km (26 miles) from the border.

"I will say realistically 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," Zelenskiy said.

"Kharkiv, which is under Ukraine government control, could be occupied. Russia needs a pretext: They will say that they are protecting the Russian-speaking population."

EU chief warns Russia on trade ties as Ukraine tensions flare

He said he believed this scenario was "feasible" following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

"It's not going to be just an occupation; it's going to be the beginning of a large-scale war," he said.

Russia, which has tens of thousands of troops near the border, has denied it plans to attack Ukraine.

Kharkiv has a population of about 1.4 million. It was the capital of Ukraine from 1919 to 1933, when it was part of the Soviet Union, and is home to tank and tractor factories as well as electronics producers.

"I want to assure all Kharkiv residents that the city is ready to give a firm rebuff to a potential invader, we have all the forces to defend Kharkiv," the city's mayor, Ihor Terekhov, said on Facebook.

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