"Russian soldiers, go home, while you're still alive!" The commander-in-chief of the 92nd Brigade of the Ukrainian army and defender of Kharkiv is defiant despite five weeks of war.

General Pavlo "Maestro", believes the military situation is "stable" in his northeastern region but warns of a new Russian offensive in the east of the country.

"They (the Russians) believed that they would cross into Ukraine like they did in Crimea" in 2014, he tells AFP in an exclusive interview.

Russian forces bombard residential areas of Kharkiv within range of its artillery on a daily basis
Russian forces bombard residential areas of Kharkiv within range of its artillery on a daily basis AFP / FADEL SENNA

"But it didn't work, that's why the enemy retreated and is regrouping. They are regrouping to attack and put maximum forces in the region or the direction of Slobozhanshchyna in northeastern Ukraine.

"We must never underestimate the enemy," he says, adding that the Russians' "forces are enormous".

President Volodymyr Zelensky in the early days of the war hailed the 47-year-old general as a Ukrainian "hero" for his defence of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second biggest city.

Pushed back from the suburbs, the Russian army is still encamped on the northern and northeastern edges of the city, from where it bombards residential areas within range of its artillery on a daily basis.

Elderly people talk outside their residential building in Kharkiv on March 29, 2022
Elderly people talk outside their residential building in Kharkiv on March 29, 2022 AFP / Sergey BOBOK

"In Kharkiv, the situation is stable," says General "Maestro", a nickname he earned during the 2014-2015 war in eastern Donbas.

"We defend ourselves in all directions and we try to repel the enemy."

The general has been wounded three times in his military career and his forehead bears a scar left by a bullet.

But despite the praise lavished on him by President Zelensky, he insists he is simply doing his job.

A man flees after artillery fire on Kharkiv on March 25, 2022
A man flees after artillery fire on Kharkiv on March 25, 2022 AFP / Aris Messinis

"I am not a hero, I am a soldier, a simple officer defending his country," he says.

With his inexhaustible energy, he moves around Kharkiv and the nearby frontlines discreetly and declines to be photographed.

A grandfather and father-of-three from a proud military family, on his left arm he wears the crest with two crossed rifles of his unit, one of the two large brigades deployed in this part of the country bordering Russia, where many Russian speakers live.

"Maestro" has survived two bombings, "with two buildings" which "fell on his head", he says calmly. "I was under the rubble and I came out unscathed."

And commenting on the recapture earlier this week by Ukrainian forces of the village of Mala Rogan and a highway on the eastern outskirts, where the Russian soldiers suffered heavy losses, he is equally phlegmatic.

It was "a classic operation of the sort we do every day", he says.

Despite the horrors of the war, he remains confident and describes the morale of Ukrainian troops as "high".

"We are here for our land, we are protecting our families, and our victories are raising our spirits.

"To the Russian forces attacking us, here is my message: take back your soldiers, take back your children, take back all your vehicles and go home, while you're still alive.

"I want a prosperous and peaceful Ukraine... in which my grandchildren will grow up like Europeans, with a good education and in a free country," he adds.