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The city stopping the fall of south Ukraine Mykolaiv will decide the future of the war

Mykolaiv cemetery during Russian shelling (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Mykolaiv cemetery during Russian shelling (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)


April 23, 2022   7 mins

Mykolaiv, Ukraine

The lady burrows into the earth. Swathed in blue plastic to protect her against the rain, she pats the soil and digs into it with her hands. She won’t speak to me, but allows me to watch as she tends to her plants and flowers in a patch of soil outside a block of flats in central Mykolaiv.

I count seven plastic water bottles stuck into the ground in a loose circle. Inside each one is a plant that must be protected against the cold and the rain. I crouch down for a closer look. The delicate tangles of green shoots and leaves strain against their clear, blue containers. The only things protecting them from pretty much certain death.

Mykolaiv is on the frontlines of Ukraine’s war in the south. All around us are soldiers and tanks and armour; the only thing that stands between its people and the Russian army. The lady looks at her flowers. “When all this is over,” she says, motioning to the grey skies and falling rain, “they will emerge, and they will bloom.”

***

The road from Odesa to Mykolaiv is littered with checkpoints. Near the village of Svetloe, a familiar ritual begins. We pull up to a melange of concrete slabs and white sandbags from which flies the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. “Britanski zhurnalist,” says Aleksandr, a Ukrainian journalist I am travelling with, to the guard peering through the car window. We hand over our documents. A few, mostly pleasant, words are exchanged and off we go. Once through, we are on the open road.

We are travelling in Aleksandr’s car: a small yellow Volkswagen caddy van with “Press” written on cardboard and attached to the front and side windows. Slipped into the pocket of each front door is a black plate of body armour: “Size: Medium,” it reads. “Man Protection,” Aleksandr says with a grin. “For our balls.”

Aleksandr is familiar with wars. He reported from Syria and covered the war here since its beginning in 2014. In 2015, he was caught in heavy shelling in Luhansk. His hands shake to this day. He is also, according to Nastia, a translator and the third member of our party, a keen metal detectorist.

Rain starts to pour. “The rain in Spain…” Aleksandr says with another smile. He explains to me how war has come to the country. “In this part of the world, corruption is a big problem. That’s why we change presidents so often. That’s the difference between us and the Russians — we change what we don’t like.”

We sluice through the soaking, pockmarked road. “Before the war, there were many here who were pro-Russian; now, after seeing everything they’ve done, they are pro-Ukraine. The Kremlin think we are Russian. We are not. Look, I am ethnically Russian — I speak Russian and will continue to speak it. But I am Ukrainian. To me the situation is like the USA and UK in the 18th century: despite the fact they spoke the same language, they were two countries. Russia thinks we are still its colony, but we are not. We are an independent country.”

After a while, Mykolaiv appears in front of us. More checkpoints. “Don’t film us,” says the soldier. Outside the city, a sign in blue and yellow reads simply: “Mykolaiv is Ukraine.” Inside, it’s clear this is a country at war. There are soldiers everywhere: on the pavement, in shops, milling outside cafes. I see a group optimistically piling into what looks like an old Lada. We stop at a phone shop. A soldier idles by the counter, AK-47 slung across his shoulder.

The remnants of a home in Mykolaiv. Destruction is everywhere.

Over the last two days, the city has come under more intense shelling than at any other point during the war. I’ve been repeatedly warned not to come. But Mykolaiv must be seen: it’s the key to the southern front. A ship-building city (the Russian flagship, Moskva, that the Ukrainians recently sank was built here), it is what stands between the Russian army and Odesa. If it falls, Ukraine will lose 85% of its access to the Black Sea, which would cause the country severe economic damage — and now that Mariupol is lost, and Russia has control of the Azov sea, Ukraine would effectively become landlocked.

I want to see the impact of the latest Russian attack and we make our way to Ingulskiy, a residential neighbourhood that has just been shelled. On our way we pass Mykolaiv Zoo, which the Rusians recently shelled — with all the animals still in it. Aleksandr points out that they didn’t target the zoo specifically, but the general area. “Are there any military targets near here?” I ask. “No,” comes the reply.

We pull up at a main road in Ingulskiy. Workmen swarm around a crane that has been erected alongside a row of three-story buildings dappled with blown out windows. In front lies a deep crater where the shell landed. Across the road are houses. “Are there any military targets near here?” I ask. “No,” comes the reply.

Everywhere the story is the same. The Hotel Ingul has a ragged semi-circular hole where much of the roof and upper floors used to be, as if an angry god had bitten a chunk out of it. I visit the Regional Psychiatric Hospital for children with emotional difficulties, which sits alongside a drug rehabilitation centre. Here, the Russians dropped a bomb by parachute. The surrounding buildings have been almost entirely blown out. The bomb crater is about 12-feet wide and several feet deep. I look around. “Are there any
” “No,” Aleksandr replies wearily.

Yet Russia’s shelling has not always been indiscriminate. Early in the war, it targeted the city’s water supply. There has been no running water ever since. Things got tough. The government feared a humanitarian catastrophe, but the roads have been kept open and water is flowing through from Odesa and other cities. At a supermarket car park in the city centre, a truck with a long silver tanker provides water to a line of locals carrying empty plastic bottles. Some have brought trolleys to fill several — they have, they explain, families to provide for. The mood is defiant. “We will be ok,” says Andriy, an entrepreneur. “Things are hard, but we will win.” A dark-haired lady in a maroon t-shirt pulls back her coat to reveal what’s written on it: “We don’t give a fuck about tanks and APCs. We are from Mykolaiv. We are volunteers.”

***

I’m trying to charge my phone in a failing power bank when Oleksandr Syenkevych, the mayor of Mykolaiv, strides into the Daily Sport cafe, takes off his AK-47 along with two clips of ammo and slides into the seat in front of me. Syenkevych has been mayor since 2015. When he arrived, the Pro-Russia Party of Regions was a majority on the city council. He has seen its vote drop steadily ever since.

Syenkevych is keen to assure people that, while the situation is serious, Ukraine remains in control. He tells me that around 40% of the population has left the city. They don’t have accurate figures but calculate this from the amount of garbage collected and water used (before the water supply was bombed, that is).

Oleksandr Syenkevych, the mayor of Mykolaiv: “Welcome to hell, motherfuckers.”

He knows how valuable Mykolaiv is for the Russians: it’s not only the access it offers to the Black Sea — it’s also a centre of Ukrainian agriculture. He knows Moscow will fight hard for it. He also knows he’s now a hunted man. “I move constantly,” he tells me. “I sleep in different places; all I need is my gun and a place to wash.”

“In the beginning I’d get messages from Russians telling me to surrender or face the fate of Mariupol. I told them: either go home and live or come here and die. Welcome to hell, motherfuckers.” He chuckles. “The Russians don’t understand that we live in a democracy. One man can’t decide for everyone. Even if I wanted to surrender, which I would not do. The people would never accept it. They’d shoot me.”

Then he leans across and tells me what Ukrainians, in varying formulations, always do. “Look, we are fighting for our families and our land: we are overmotivated. The Russians are fighting only to die on the orders of Putin. They are undermotivated. What he does is nothing more the genocide. He attacks hospitals, kindergartens, schools; he kills anyone. Everyone who lives in Ukraine has now had a relative who was killed, injured or sent into exile. All this grief he has caused
 the people will never forget it.”

***

Roaring down the highway to the villages beyond Mykolaiv where the frontlines are, Aleksandr points to the right: “The Russians are that way,” he says. The ground is gold and the sky is blue: whatever the Russians think, this is true Ukraine. We pass through village after village on our way to Bashtanka, where last month the Russians came and shot the school principal. There was fighting in the street before the Ukrainians eventually pushed them back. “Russians were on the road we are on now,” he says, swerving around a jagged piece of burned metal. We approach the checkpoint guarding Bashtanka; three figures in uniform stand hunched over in the mist.

A crater formed after a parachute bomb struck a child rehabilitation centre.

The village is strafed by war. In its centre, a shell has ripped apart the statue of a Soviet cosmonaut. A row of shops has been almost entirely bombed out. But amid blackened concrete and charred wood, a local shop remains defiantly open. Ukraine in miniature. Next door, the building is a shell filled with rubble. There is a sudden movement; an old woman scampers out of a cranny. She seems to have lost her mind. “Everything is CHAOS,” she screams, before crying over her dead husband and breaking into song.

The sound of shelling tumbles through the sky. You cannot escape destruction here. Many of the buildings lucky enough to have escaped direct hits have had their windows blown out. A passing woman tells me that she’s on her way to meet a friend injured in the Russian attacks. She is 77 years old: “I’ve lost my daughter, my husband, my brother. I am no longer scared of anything.”

We drive out of the village. The hail stops. The sun splinters the clouds and bathes our windscreen in light. “Wizard country,” says Aleksandr. “He means magic country,” Nastia says. “I know,” I reply.

Yet none of this can hide what I saw in Mykolaiv and its surrounding villages: the effects of industrial-powered, technologically advanced state violence up close. Still, for all its power and awe and sheer capability, what struck me most is the same absence that I have seen in all conflicts, from the counterinsurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan to the tribal and sectarian wars of the Congo and Lebanon.

The absence is one of language. All violence is, in the end, a failure of words. Russia has run out of words so it can only attack Ukraine. But it’s worse than that. Those words that it does have — the ones it spouts every day on TV and radio — have become warped and twisted and irretrievably unmoored from reality, and in them is contained the seeds of its own downfall.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

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Tom Blanton
Tom Blanton
2 years ago

Of all that I have read on this war since it started, this is the best, a report well moored in reality. Thank you, David Patrikarakos.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Blanton
Jen Segal
Jen Segal
2 years ago

I’m a gardener. The image of plants straining toward sky and sun and the woman determined to help them thrive is a simple declaration of hope and determination.

Wonderful, powerful piece. Thank you.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

I’m reading the book Aftermath currently, about immediate post war Germany, and how their people coped and then progressed with getting the country back on its feet. It’s truly remarkable, and rather weird, how humans can tolerate such extreme circumstances, and then move on.
Hopefully we’ll see Ukraine recover and blossom like those plants.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart


as an independent country with its territory intact.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Unfortunately I think they’ll eventually lose Crimea and Donbas for good. However Putin has forever lost the chance of bringing Ukrainians under Russias influence

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

If Putin takes Odesa, he controls 25% of the world’s food. Then he can blackmail Europe, both with gas, and with food. This isn’t about Ukraine.
It’s about you.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Thank you Martin. Accurate and precise statements on geopolitics have been missing from the West for decades. We have been living in an affluent effete fool’s paradise for far too long.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

He doesn’t control 25% of the worlds food, he controls 25% of the wheat that is exported. Remember most wheat is for domestic consumption, and wheat doesn’t make up 25% of the worlds diet. While it would be an inconvenience, it changes nothing for the west

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The price of commodities are rising. If Putin reduces supply of food, especially wheat, how much will prices further and at what point will civil unrest start?For Europe, civil unrest in ME and North Africa will cause problems.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Ask the people in the poor half of the world. It will destabilize a good part of their world.
And ultimately that will affect us.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

It’s modern imperialism.

Vicha Unkow
Vicha Unkow
2 years ago

My grandparents and father fought the Bolsheviks and their offspring the Soviets. They stood firm and never accepted their garbage and their Oligarchs. They will be gone soon, Putin made his ultimate mistake. Their Billionaires need to be taken down in Russia as well as Ukraine other former Soviet puppets nations. Corruption

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

This is an unmitigated disaster for Russia.
It will almost certainly lead to the fall of Putin. Moreover, he has eliminated all opposition, so now no one possesses the legitimacy to take over after he goes. Indeed, the Army has so disgraced itself that no one will obey any general.
As with 1917 and 1991, the nation will break apart. The only question is whether any significant group will try to put it back together again. If anyone does, prepare for some horrendous violence within Russia itself–violence that makes Bucha look like a garden party.

Dinamite
Dinamite
2 years ago

“Are There Any Military Targets Near Here”. “Yes” would be a surprising answer.

Andrew Giarelli
Andrew Giarelli
2 years ago

Powerful work here. Thanks.

Erry Moningkey
Erry Moningkey
2 years ago

Great report.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago

“Russia has run out of words so it can only attack Ukraine”

How would the writer know this when all Russian media has been censored.

To be clear, I am not defending or supporting Russia. Not at all. I just find it odd that someone can write this sentence when they really can’t have a clue whether Russia has run out of words or not.

Having watched Putin and Lavrov speak via news channels in uncensored countries, it hasn’t sounded like the Russians have run out of words. It just sounds like Western politicians and media don’t want anyone hearing those words.

But surely if we want to bring an end to this horrible conflict we desperately need to be using words and not weapons.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

What are those words that justify this unprovoked assault on Ukraine. Apart from the General confirming what we already knew, that this was never about NATO but a simple land grab of Ukraine and Moldova?

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

If you listen to the speech that Putin gave prior to this conflict, which hardly anyone has, then it is very clear that this wasn’t an ‘unprovoked’ attack. One can rightly argue it is wrong (I think ALL war is wrong) but to say it is is unprovoked seems to imply you are only going off what the Western propaganda machine is spewing out.

If we are to find a non-violent solution to this conflict then we must be establishing the real reasons and then using diplomacy to find a way forward. Unfortunately too many people are claiming to know why Putin did what he did when they have only seen one side of the propaganda wars.

There are two sides to any argument and if people refuse to listen to the other side, or are prevented from doing so through censorship, then any argument is impossible to resolve.

We spent two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan based on lies, propaganda and sabre rattling, (most of it coming from OUR govts and OUR media) and those exact three things will keep us in Ukraine for two decades of we don’t start demanding peace right now.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paul Smithson
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

That would be the rambling speech where Putin decided Ukraine wasn’t really a country, and should be under Russian rule? The Ukrainians clearly don’t believe their country is part of Russia do they, and Zelensky has already offered to discuss neutrality and not joining NATO yet the Russians still shell cities full of civilians. There are two sides to every story, yet that doesn’t mean both sides are equally valid. Ukraine has done nothing to warrant the destruction Russia has put upon it, the blame for this belongs to Putin and nobody else.
Also the whataboutery by banging on about the mistakes of western nations in the past is nothing to do with this conflict

Michael Ledzion
Michael Ledzion
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

No one is provoked. It is entirely their decision to act. Full stop.

Russia is taking a sad angry and embittered approach to the end of its empire.

Credit to the British who managed it with very little bloodshed, and that only to ensure peaceful transitions. They evening announced a policy of withdrawal from empire. Can you imagine Russia/Putin making such an announcement?!?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

Could you explain – so far no one has made any attempt to do so – Why wouldn’t every single one of your rather naĂŻve arguments have applied to Hitler’s successive aggressions in the 1930s? The situations are similar in many ways, including the ‘protection’ and later gathering in all the Russians/ Germans (whether these populations wanted this or not) and the endless rehashing of dubious weaponised historical grievances etc.

David NebeskĂœ
David NebeskĂœ
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

Your whole comment is based on the false assumption that Putin says what he thinks. But Putin lies. Anyone who was naive enough to believe Putin before the war should understand by now that he was deceived.
You can listen to the Russian side as long as you want, but accept that it’s just lies and propaganda. We don’t know the real reason for the war and the Russians won’t tell us. Maybe Putin wants to go down in history as a great conqueror. Maybe he wants to conquer the Ukrainian gas fields. Maybe he wants to gain an industrial base to conquer Europe. Maybe he was afraid that without starting a war, the Russian hawks would dethrone him. Maybe he believed his own propaganda about how Russia was in danger. Maybe China was involved, wanting to weaken both Russia and Europe and test how the US would react before invading Taiwan. We don’t know and probably we never will. We just know that the reasons Russia gives (they keep changing) are lies.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

Russian gobbledygook doesn’t help the situation one iota.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

I don’t understand Russian either but subtitles are usually available David.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paul Smithson
Red Reynard
Red Reynard
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

Violence is indicative of a failure to communicate, ie running out of words. You answer your own opening question in your closing statement.
All the best.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Red Reynard

Hw does one communicate with Attila The Hun, Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame??

JayBee
JayBee
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

Agree entirely. Appears to be the writer of this piece who has run out of words – mainly those that would go some way to placing recent events in historical context.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  JayBee

The historical context being that Ukraine was once part of the USSR and Putin wants that to be the case again?

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

Russia will never run out of lies – or liars. Or apologists.
There is no negotiation possible with these criminal thugs. Get real.

David NebeskĂœ
David NebeskĂœ
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

You cannot negotiate with them not because they lie, but because you cannot trust them to keep any commitment. Russia cannot, on principle, commit to anything and get anything in return from the other side, because everyone knows that Russia will break all its commitments when it suits it.

Sam McGowan
Sam McGowan
2 years ago

Look at a map, Russia doesn’t need Mykolaiv. In fact, Russian troops are nowhere near the place. By the way, a civilian with an AK47 is no longer a civilian – they’re a target.

martin logan
martin logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam McGowan

Russia wants to strangle Ukraine in its crib.
It cannot do that without taking Odesa, and thus stopping all Ukrainian agricultural exports. Then Putin controls much of the worlds’ food supply (your food, BTW).
Moreover, a successful nation with many native Russians speakers is an existential threat to Putin’s regime. If Ukraine lives, Putin’s Russia dies.
It’s as simple as that.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  martin logan

We might add that Putin is the existential threat to Russia. He’s ruining the country.

rk syrus
rk syrus
2 years ago

Is anyone of the mind of Professor Mearsheimer that NATO expansion and American idiocy are the sole reasons Putin was forced to act? Does Putin have more justification for his special military action than America and Britain did for their Iraqi special military action which cost how many Iraqi lives? (Population-based studies produce estimates of the number of Iraq War casualties ranging from 151,000 violent deaths as of June 2006 to 1,033,000 excess deaths).
Putin is winning, will win, and the West (the Anglosphere the 11 members of the G-20 which agreed to sanctions, 9 told America to suck it) will have to negotiate with a very popular, successful, and intelligent modern tsar of Russia and respect that ancient nation’s status as a great power.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  rk syrus

If anybody still believes this invasion happened because of NATO then in my opinion they’re a simpleton. Russias general has now said the plan is to take southern Ukraine and the east of Moldova. It’s a land grab pure and simple

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  rk syrus

No. That’s just rubbish.Mearsheimer is a fool.
The Americans have completely out-manouvered Putin and forced him into a catastrophic error in Ukraine. They have the Russians now tied down in a “can’t win” conflict in Ukraine with minimal support to Ukraine which can be be further ramped up as needed.
Russia’s military has now been exposed as a joke.
Meanwhile, NATO expansion to add Finland and Sweden is almost certain. At this rate, Russian shipping won’t be able to leave the Black Sea or Baltic.
Everyone knows that Russia is a declining power. The dempographics don’t lie.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  rk syrus

Mearsheimer has gone from having an interesting point of view from the position of ‘realpolitik’, to become a full on Putin apologist. This idea that so many have, on Left and Right, that only the West and specifically the US have agency, is just silly on the face of it. (I’m not sure how the West manages to be both weak, effete, cowardly and pusillanimous, and a dark threat to Russia AT THE SAME TIME, but that seems to pretty much sum up the position of so many critics on this subject).

Putin was razing cities to the ground in 2001, so I think we could have seen back then – some did – what kind of regime he was running.

Attempting to reconquer Ukraine because NATO accepted some small Baltic nations – who had every historic reason to fear Russia, as did Poland – is an excuse, not a reason. Putin knows full well that NATO is defensive in nature and you would never get European support for any offensive stance. More likely he doesn’t want to see a successful, democratic liberal state develop on his borders which would be an implicit challenge to his rule. Screw what the Ukrainian people might want – even the Russian speaking part, whose cities have been destroyed around them!

You drag in the completely irrelevant Iraq situation, presumably to show the ‘hypocrisy’ of the West, though what that has to do with the Ukrainians isn’t ever told. On an obvious level, ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. Secondly, the motives were somewhat different, though many have done their best to try and show that Bush – and even more Blair – always intended a cynical war of conquest. As a matter of fact, experts at the time, including Hans Blix, the UN rapporteur, DID believe Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Thirdly, the US had no intention of staying in Iraq, as events have proved. You can undoubtedly say that this was a self-defeating geopolitical act as it led to the strengthening of Iran. Those population figures you give are simply fantasy, nothing like that number of people died as a result of the American invasion; some say many people died prematurely as a result of the previous economic sanctions, but those were agreed by the UN and the Security Council as a whole, and in any case there were all sorts of allowances for food and medicine.

Russia may well win this war, although your evident delight is this outcome is pretty nauseating. Where are the wishes of the Ukrainians in this? Russia has by far the greatest land area of any power in the world, and vast resources, so it could already be a ‘respected nation’ if it so chose. The borders with Ukraine and Belarus were agreed in a treaty in 1991 at the time the Soviet Union was dissolved. ‘Bring back the Tsars’ – unfortunately Russia has a history of brutal autocratic rulers, but we don’t need to cheer on the fact. We don’t need to look to Stalin; Putin’s hero Peter ‘the Great’ – worked tens of thousands of slave labourers to death in building St Petersburg, had his own son flayed to death etc etc.

The idea that Russia will be a ‘success’ – even in terms of a petro-economy, it doesn’t even manage to do so in the way that Saudi Arabia does – is ridiculous. It would likely become largely dependent on China, and since it stole vast territories from the latter in a number of ‘unequal treaties’ in the 19th century (rather larger than Hong Kong!), I’m not at all sure that even Russia’s territorial integrity would be secure.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher