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The Molotov militia waiting for the Russians

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Mykolaiv, 14 March 2022

by Askold Krushelnycky,

The Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv is being reinforced for a renewed onslaught by Russian forces which have so far been frustrated in their plans to seize the city which is key to their ambitions to control Ukraine’s coastline.

The region’s Governor Vitaliy Kim, whose inspiring leadership has made him a national symbol of resistance said: “The Russian army is experiencing problems and is falling back. It isn’t fighting our army, it’s just shelling and dropping bombs all over our city. That’s a pity.”

A residential neighbourhood in Mykolaiv until the Russian guns honed in on it.

He said he could not go into detail about what the Ukrainian army was doing but added: “For now the situation is better than it was yesterday. And I think that over the next two days you will learn more from official sources.”

I saw a Ukrainian armoured column entering the city on Sunday. It apparently did not stay and carried on to a battle on Monday near the border with its neighbouring region, Kherson, where it pushed back Russian forces by several kilometres. He said: “For now the city is quiet and we are getting help from other cities and other countries. People and stores are working and we are getting supplies in for whatever situations develop.”

The city had enough resources to keep the Russians at bay. They also have that special Ukrainian USP: “Our best resource is our willpower.” The Russians need to move west cross the River Buh, which runs through the city and is a natural defence for Moscow’s attempts to press on to Odesa, the biggest prize along the Black Sea Coast.

Mykolaiv is an important city in its own right, and the Russians are determined to capture it and the mile long Varvarskiya Bridge across the Pivdenny Buh River to allow their tanks, armoured personnel carriers and supply vehicles to race 125 kms westward to Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port and home to its navy.

Control of Odesa would allow Russia to dominate Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast and choke the country’s economy, which depends on the port for a huge slice of its export revenues. The Russians know the Varvarskiya Bridge has been wired to blow up by Ukrainian sappers should it be in danger of being captured. So they have been trying to capture crossing points across the river north of the city at towns like Vozhnesensk and Pervomaisk, which have seen fierce fighting.

Viktor (L) and refugees at communal supper in hotel, Mykolaiv.

The Russians used airplanes, missiles and artillery to attack Pervomaisk on March 14. But Ukrainian troops, who have already destroyed some of the bridges, have held off the Russians. There have been many civilian and military casualties but Kim said the hospitals were coping well for the moment and there were adequate supplies of medicines and no shortages of doctors or other medical staff.

The Mykolaiv authorities are not allowing the Press to visit hospitals or morgues. However, one reliable source who did visit the morgue yesterday (March 14) told the AEJ that there were some 40 civilian dead and 100 in uniforms, stretching the facility’s capacity. “It’s quite an awful sight with some of the dead stacked upon each other and covered only in blankets.”

Although the authorities are not giving out military casualty figures, everybody in this city knows that it has paid a high price in lives since the Russians mounted intensive bombardments from the first days of the war. The Russians initially captured Mykolaiv’s airport to the north west but Ukrainian forces wrested it back after heavy fighting.

One mother at the morgue said it had taken 10 days to retrieve her soldier-son’s body from ground that was being constantly shelled. She said she had no more energy to cry and had accepted days before her son had been killed and had found some relief in knowing she could now bury him properly.

The city’s streets are noticeably more deserted than last week although many small supermarkets, grocery stores and pharmacies are still operating and nobody is apparently going hungry, yet. A well-organised network of volunteers is trying to check on the elderly, those living alone and otherwise potentially vulnerable people to ensure they have sufficient food or to help them evacuate their homes.

Although alcohol sales have been banned throughout Ukraine for more than a week, some cafes continue to serve customers. The hipster Avocado Cafe, not far from the Mykolaiv region’s administration offices, housing the governor’s offices, is still attracting stylishly dressed young people who are now sharing lattes with police from a nearby station who sling their Kalashnikov machine guns over their shoulders as they get their shot of caffeine.

Kim is sure the Russians are deliberately targeting civilian areas in order to scare people into leaving Mykolaiv because it might then be easier to capture. “That is consistent with their goals. They are trying to destroy the infrastructure, electricity, heat, gas.”

The governor said that hundreds of people were indeed leaving and he understood the desire of people to get their loved ones, especially children and the elderly, to safety. However, he said he was proud that “90 percent of the men are returning to defend Mykolaiv” after guiding their families out.

Sure signs of how hard the city’s inhabitants are determined to fight abound. Maksym, in the uniform of a member of the territorial defence forces, mostly volunteers or reservists, was on patrol with his friend, Oleg. Both, in their mid-fifties, and, in normal times, civil servant bureaucrats, were armed with Kalashnikov machine guns and watching the streets carefully as dusk approached. Maksym, using a popular expletive for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, said: “That prick doesn’t scare us. We’re not running away and the Russians will get a hell of a reception if they try to come into our city.”

But the two soldiers, like many other people, cannot understand why NATO has not declared a no-fly zone over Ukraine. “If we had that,” he said, “the Russians would be out of here very fast.” At the very least people want western countries to provide airplanes for Ukrainian pilots to challenge Russia’s current overwhelming air superiority.

All the main roads have checkpoints and traffic chicanes of concrete and steel girder tanks traps, coils of barbed wire and devices which shred thick military tyres. These have become ubiquitous to all Ukraine’s streets. Piles of old car tyres are stacked at many street corners. They are there to provide some sort of cover for defenders if Russian forces break into the city.

But also to make the Russians puzzle over what may lie behind them. Pre-prepared Molotov Cocktails have been placed near some of the walls of tyres and at other easily located places.

On Monday afternoon Kim told me he believes his city will get some respite as Ukrainian forces counterattack eastward to try to liberate parts of neighbouring Kherson region occupied by the invaders. And he believes the Russians are increasingly focusing on objectives in the west of Ukraine.

Last Sunday (March 13) missiles were launched at a number of cities in the country’s west where 35 people died and more than 100 ere injured when multiple missiles struck a military base at Yavoriv near the Polish border. Ukrainian forces are preparing for Russian incursions throughout he Belarus border which is 70 miles from western Ukraine’s main city of Lviv.

But “respite” is relative. Shelling had erupted at different times all day in Mykolaiv. I was awoken by shelling around 7am which cut electricity at the hotel where I was staying for around 40 minutes until it was restored. Around 7pm there was a series of explosions, probably caused by large-caliber mortars or perhaps missiles of some sort. Around midnight I was awoken again by a volley of something quite close which produced explosions that shook the building.

Now at 9am Tuesday March 15, I am preparing to leave Mykolaiv as I am going to head to the western parts of Ukraine where Russians are stepping up their activity. I will write a separate story about the remarkable people in this hotel which is a graphic example of how Ukrainians are banding together to defend their country. It’s a large, fine, not luxurious but very comfortable, hotel with modern furnishings in bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms not far from the eastern end of the Varvarskiya Bridge. The owner has opened it up to some 35 refugees, men, women and children, who fled from Kherson. He has provided accommodation for free and is using his own money to feed them.

All the men, including the hotel owner, Viktor, have volunteered for the territorial defence forces and been issued with Kalashnikov rifles. They draw up daily duty rotas and keep watch around the hotel all night. They eat supper communally in the hotel’s dining room just after curfew begins at 6pm. Viktor pours out a shot of vodka for everyone and gives a report of what’s been happening around Ukraine that day – including a description of a successful operation by Ukrainian forces somewhere.

Viktor says “Slava Ukrainjini” and eliciting the response “Herjojam Slava!” The atmosphere is charged with emotion. But tender, quiet threads of courage and determination to defend their country and shared ideals bind together these extraordinary people. Viktor and the others staying here have shown me such consideration, generosity and affection that after only two days with them I feel I am leaving close family. I feel privileged to have met them and so many like them in the 20 days of all-out war so far. I know, when I get into my car alone, I will cry.

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