Tom Mutch reports from the frontline city of Mykolaiv, which avoided capture by the Russian Army and is now at the centre of a Ukrainian counter-offensive

“All we want is for Russia and all Russians to f*ck off and get out of our country,” Ira Hadetska, a 28-year-old legal mediator told me as she sat nursing a latte in a café in central Mykolaiv. 

Earlier, we had been standing outside the rubble and broken glass of the entrance to the Petro Mohlya Black Sea National University, where she had trained as a lawyer several years before.

Hadetska had grown up in Mykolaiv but moved to Kyiv after her graduation. She left Ukraine after the Russian invasion in February. After spells in Cyprus and Latvia, she had moved back to Ukraine and was visiting her hometown. But Mykolaiv is barely recognisable after six months of the war. 

This city, Ukraine’s fortress of the south, has acquired a new strategic significance as the country’s armed forces conduct a counter-offensive to liberate the province of Kherson from Russian soldiers.

Russian forces stormed into Kherson from their bases in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, apparently after treachery from local Ukrainian officials, in early March as they attempted to take all of Ukraine’s southern coast. But they were stopped by determined Ukrainian resistance at the gates of Mykolaiv. The lines of contact have remained mostly static since.

But, like the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine’s north-east, the Russians have responded by pummelling the city with artillery and missiles to batter the population into submission. 

“They hit the university with three S300 rockets,” said Oleksandr Senkevych, Mayor of Mykolaiv, as he stood next to a crater in the middle of one of the university’s lawns. “You can see there is nothing military here, this is purely a civilian target.”

Trees in a courtyard on the grounds of the bombed university in Mykolaiv. Photo: Alex Chan Tzu Yuk

Wandering freely around the university grounds and through its buildings seemed to confirm the Mayor’s words – after half an hour I couldn’t see any signs of military equipment or personnel. 

Pointing to a mangled heap of twisted steel with wires sticking out of it that had previously been a cash machine, Hadetska said “that ATM used to never give us back our cards. Maybe now I can go and get mine from the safe!” 

For Victoria Grabar, a 21-year-old IT worker who has spent most of the war in Mykolaiv, “our city feels very normal during the day, but during the night, it is like evil spirits come out”.

Before I visited the city, I had read a report by BBC journalist Andrew Harding in which he wrote that “the first night is always the hardest in Mykolaiv… sleep is near impossible”. As if on cue, I was woken by the Russian missile strike on the university at 3 am.

These strikes would be repeated three times while I was there. Same target, same missiles, same complete lack of rhyme or reason to the strike. Since the Ukrainian counter-offensive began on Monday, two civilians have been killed by shelling, and a Russian strike narrowly missed the city’s major bridge which was full of civilian vehicles. 

Despite the dangers and constant attacks, many people choose to stay behind. Of the approximately half a million people who lived in Mykolaiv before the war, 250,000 remain here today. Their reasons for doing so are varied.

Some stay out of a sense of obligation and duty.

Tamara, a 33-year-old cosmetologist, now working with a group called ‘Rebel Volunteers’, invited me into its office. Her family has already fled Russian aggression once after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. Now she refuses to move again.

“If everyone leaves then Mykolaiv will no longer exist,” she said. “The Russians will completely destroy it.”

She works providing aid and delivering supplies to soldiers and civilians stationed in frontline areas. “Our first job is to help provide food and necessities for the military,” she said. “It is easier to get humanitarian aid for civilians but almost impossible to get help from the military. Everyone says they are for ‘peace’, but the only thing that can bring us peace is the protection given to us by our military.”

Others simply cannot bear to leave their loved ones and friends behind. 

Nataliia Aleksieieva, a 28-year-old publishing editor was due to move to Sweden with her husband before the war. But when he was called up to the army, she said she couldn’t consider moving without him.

The destroyed regional administration building in Mykolaiv. Photo: Alex Chan Tzu Yuk

“At first I stayed in a basement shelter,” she told Byline Times. “After two weeks, I decided to come back home – there were no windows no fresh air, no sunlight. I came home and I was recording a voice message to my husband that it wasn’t so bad in Mykolaiv so there was no reason to stay in the basement… right at that moment, about 100 metres from me, the hotel exploded. I took all my clothes and cats and returned to the basement and stayed there for three months or so.”

Like the eastern Donbas and Kharkiv regions, people in the south of Ukraine acknowledge that it has traditionally been known for being Russian-speaking and having strong links with Russia. But months of bombardment have turned the locals into fierce Ukrainian patriots. 

“I grew up speaking Russian, along with everyone else in Mykolaiv,” Aleksieieva said. “But my future children… right now I don’t even want them to know that language or this country exists. When I learned about what happened in Bucha, everything changed. At the start of the war, we called them animals, but then I realised that animals are not capable of this type of cruelty.”

The end of the war is not currently in sight. Ukraine is undertaking a large counter-offensive in Kherson, with unknown gains so far, and both sides have stated negotiations have no chance.

But what is clear is that, Vladimir Putin’s propagandist idea of the ‘Russkiy Mir’ – a Russian-speaking cultural and political world with its heart in Moscow – has been smashed under the bombing and bloodshed in the fields of southern and eastern Ukraine.

As Aleksieieva said: “We are with Europe now – we can never look to Russia again.” 

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