New Lines Magazine

No Respite on Ukraine’s Bloody Southern Front

Research Fellow
Smoke billows out from a damaged fuel depot in Odesa hours after a Russian missile strike on April 3. (James Barnett)
Smoke billows out from a damaged fuel depot in Odesa hours after a Russian missile strike on April 3. (James Barnett)

Ingul Hotel was struck by a Russian missile around 10 p.m. on March 22, for what reason no one is quite sure. The hotel was empty at the time save for the manager and a security guard, meaning, thankfully, no one was killed. The windows of a neighbor’s car were blown out, the playground next door took some shrapnel, and the hotel that TripAdvisor ranks number four out of seven in the former Soviet shipbuilding center of Mykolaiv (which has never, to my knowledge, received many tourists) is now a heap of rubble.

And for what? On the surface, this strike would seem to amount to an inexplicable waste of an expensive missile at a time when Russia would presumably be looking to conserve its arsenals. But, of course, the Russian army is nothing if not wasteful — be it with its tanks, its helicopters, or its generals — and each day that passes its strategy seems to rely less on killing Ukrainian soldiers than on exhausting the broader population through incessant bombardment.

“The strike woke me up that night, but I wasn’t too surprised,” recounts Igor as he leans against a tree beside the caved-in hotel façade, gesturing toward his apartment’s balcony nearby.

“The Russians had been attacking the city for weeks, hitting different residential buildings. So, we get used to explosions.”

At that moment we hear rumbling nearby, which causes Igor to pause but not flinch. “That’s ours,” he says after a second. It’s outgoing artillery fire aimed at the front lines a short drive away. So, nothing to worry about for the residents of Mykolaiv. It’s the incoming fire that has forced so much of the city’s population to flee.

Mykolaiv is (or was) a city of half a million people located on a river just inland from the Black Sea coast, some two hours’ drive from Ukraine’s third-largest city of Odesa. Mykolaiv’s strategic value is pretty straightforward: If Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to deny Ukraine access to the sea, he needs Odesa, and the road to Odesa lies through Mykolaiv. In the first week of the war, Russian forces attempted to capture Mykolaiv through a conventional ground assault, only to be repulsed by stiff Ukrainian resistance, including from local residents who rapidly enlisted in the National Guard and Territorial Defense Forces.

Ukrainian forces have since pushed the battle into neighboring Kherson oblast (province), though some Western intelligence agencies still assess Mykolaiv to be “contested” given its proximity to the front. The city certainly has the feel of a battlespace. Most of the shops are boarded up, many of the city’s trees have been cut down to build barricades, and the streets are bisected by anti-tank obstacles and sandbags painted with such colorful slogans as “Putin is a bitch” (in Russian, of course). The ubiquitous checkpoints all seem to have stashes of Molotov cocktails on hand, while various armored vehicles trundle along the roads or are camped in concealed locations.

And then there is the artillery. So long as the city is within range of Russian rocket launchers, Mykolaiv gets no respite.

“This is not war against the Ukraine government. It is war against Ukraine people,” a local surgeon named Max says when I meet him outside one of the city’s few open shops. He explains that most of the patients he has treated are civilians wounded by shelling.

“We have [had] a few quiet days, fortunately,” Max says in English, “which for us means we hear explosions only outside city.”

Almost as an afterthought, he corrects himself with a tinge of embarrassment.

“Except for the attack on administration building, of course.”

On the morning of March 29, the Russians launched a single cruise missile at the oblast’s administrative headquarters, blowing a massive hole in the 10-story building minutes before the governor was set to arrive.

“This is a typical Russian strategy to reinforce their positions during the negotiations by terrorizing the people,” explains Dmitry Pletenchuk, a spokesperson for the oblast’s military administration. Pletenchuk is dressed in full combat gear, standing in front of the blast site while rescue crews are working by hand and with excavators to remove the rubble. It has been 48 hours since the attack, and they are still discovering bodies.

Pletenchuk is referring to the negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian representatives in Istanbul, talks that each day bring vague reports of some progress or potential breakthrough. The reality on the ground in southern Ukraine has been far less encouraging.

“This is not a military site; most of the victims are civil servants,” Pletenchuk explains. He puts the death toll at “more than 20,” though later in the day a soldier involved in the rescue effort suggests the number is significantly higher. As of April 2, rescue crews had confirmed the deaths of 35 people, according to the governor.

The strike on the oblast’s administration building underscores the precarious situation in southern Ukraine. Throughout the country, Russian forces have stalled or begun to retreat and regroup in the face of Ukrainian resistance far fiercer and more effective than anything they had anticipated back in February. The Istanbul talks have given Russia the diplomatic cover to claim its withdrawals from the Kyiv suburbs as some sort of confidence-building measure rather than the embarrassing retreats that they are (retreats accompanied, as we are now beginning to see, by horrific massacres).

No one on the southern front really expects that Putin has given up on his goal to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. Sergei Bratchuk, a spokesperson for the military administration in Odesa oblast, says bluntly, “We don’t believe what the Russians say in Istanbul.” This sentiment is in line with the assessment of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who recently said that Russia intends to seize all of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Bratchuk believes that there is a high chance of another offensive on Mykolaiv in the coming weeks, likely to be conducted in tandem with the much-anticipated Russian push to capture the remainder of the Donbas region further east. While Ukrainian forces have made gradual advances from Mykolaiv into Kherson over the past three weeks, there are fears this progress could be reversed if the Russians bring in reinforcements.

In any case, the Russians continue to make life hell for those behind the line of contact. Mykolaiv testifies to the fact that what the Russian military cannot capture on the ground, it will seek to pulverize from a distance with its artillery, aircraft and missiles, with little, if any, regard for the distinction between civilian and military targets.

These bombardments, both consistent yet seemingly random, have not broken the city’s will to resist. On the contrary, animosity toward Russia is stronger than ever in this oblast that twice voted for the pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 and 2010.

At one hospital in the oblast, the director has nothing but contempt for Russian forces. “It’s not soldiers we are fighting, it’s bandits,” he says. “This army looks like the Russian mafia.”

There are days when the hospital is overwhelmed with critical patients, victims of the latest Russian shelling (mostly civilians, though sometimes soldiers from the front). And then there are days that are quieter when the doctors can offer some routine medical care to local residents. But, of course, it’s impossible to predict what the day — or even the hour — will bring, and hospital staff have learned to expect the worst. Some doctors live at the hospital day and night since their own homes were destroyed or are located behind enemy lines.

The hospital abides by “the rules,” the director says in reference to the Geneva Conventions, meaning that he has treated Russian prisoners of war. But doing so gives him no pleasure, he admits, as the Russian military does not reciprocate. “They will hit a civilian hospital; we have seen this many times.”

I ask the director about the rifle that is resting in the corner of his office, which does not look like any I’ve seen Ukrainian soldiers carry. It’s his personal rifle that he has used for years in amateur sports shooting competitions, he explains. “This is not my main weapon,” he says. “Surgery is my main weapon.”

But the director feels he should be prepared, nonetheless. He lists the cities where he has family, all of which have been hit hard over the past month, and shows me a photograph of his daughter’s destroyed apartment block in Kyiv. He will continue to practice surgery, he says, and he stresses that his is a civilian hospital with no military value. But if Russians come for his own home, how can he allow them to do this, he asks rhetorically, pointing at the photo of his daughter’s destroyed flat.

As I leave his office, he pulls a clip of rounds he uses for recreational shooting out of the rifle bag.

“Yesterday, not military,” he says.

Then, pulling a new clip of ammunition out of the bag: “Today, military,” he says with a slight grin.

Located some 80 miles away by road, Odesa seems, by the standards of Ukrainian cities today, relatively calm. For this, the city’s residents recognize their debt to the neighboring oblast.

“Odesa is really protected thanks to Mykolaiv,” Daniel Salem, a member of the National Guard, tells me one morning at a checkpoint marking the entrance of Odesa’s heavily barricaded downtown, where many government offices are located. Salem is a photogenic Lebanese-Ukrainian actor and nightclub owner who volunteered for the National Guard on the first day of the war. Because he is a veteran of the Lebanese army, he was able to skip basic training and has fought on the Mykolaiv-Kherson front multiple times since Feb. 24. He claims that Russian forces there are made up of clueless conscripts who make easy targets, but he acknowledges that the fighting has been rough for Ukrainians as well.

After a month of all-out mobilization, a degree of pseudo-normalcy appears to be returning to Odesa. On the morning I walk around downtown (albeit under a military escort), a coffee shop is opening its doors for the first time since Feb. 24, the first business in the downtown area to do so, it appears. The owner acknowledges that things will be difficult with access to the district limited by checkpoints, but she expects to get steady business from those living in the neighborhood — and soldiers. “There is lots of army in downtown now, and they drink coffee.”

Outside the central district, other businesses appear even more bullish. Construction workers can be seen assembling outdoor seating at the city’s most famous oceanside nightclub, “Ibiza,” which plans to reopen from its winter hibernation in May as it does every year (how that will work in a city with a 9 p.m. curfew is unclear).

Inga Kordynoska runs a volunteer center for refugees and is heartened by the extent to which her fellow Odesans have begun to reclaim something of their prewar lives.

“I wouldn’t believe in the first days of the war that I would be able to drink coffee with friends again,” she says. The Ukrainian army’s success on fronts such as Mykolaiv and Kyiv, and the well-documented failures of the Russian military, are giving residents a sense of hope, she explains. She has even resumed one of her favorite hobbies, ballroom dancing, in recent days.

Ukrainian authorities are careful not to overstate the progress on the security front, however. Odesa Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov justifies the reopening of small- and medium-sized businesses as necessary to avoid further economic pain caused by the war.

“A human being is a creature that can adapt to anything. Unfortunately, we have to get used to new conditions, and these are war conditions,” he tells me through his translator during a concert fundraiser for Ukrainian soldiers.

“We still have the threat of an [amphibious] assault on Odesa, because we still have Russian warships in the Black Sea.”

Trukhanov adds that activity at Odesa’s port, Ukraine’s largest, is paralyzed as ships are unable to safely enter or leave for fear of striking a mine or getting caught in the crossfire. It doesn’t help that the Russians have been hitting industrial areas beside the port with airstrikes, which show no sign of letting up.

On the same day that my Ukrainian colleague and I enjoy a beer by the ocean to celebrate the resumption of alcohol sales (suspended for a month under martial law), I’m kept awake late into the evening by frequent bursts of anti-aircraft fire and air raid sirens. Thankfully, the city’s defenses seem to intercept whatever aircraft or missiles the Russians throw at them. But less than 48 hours later, early on Sunday morning, the Russians succeed in striking oil storage facilities near the port, sending plumes of dark smoke over the city for the remainder of the day. Pedestrians occasionally pause to look up at the spectacle and exchange some remarks of concern with passersby before continuing on with their Sunday routines. The cafes open on time, and the local busker takes up his regular spot in the park, unperturbed by the black clouds floating above.

Odesa’s citizens are not panicking, but they are preparing. In an abandoned Soviet-era warehouse outside of town, dozens of residents ranging in age from teenage boys to their middle-aged mothers show up every day to receive basic firearms training from local volunteers. This is a free and informal program, the organizer, a stout man with a goatee, explains. He and his friends from the local sports shooting association decided to offer lessons when the war started and the government began to hand out AK-47s to thousands of volunteers of the Territorial Defense Forces, some of whom receive only a few days of training.

“There are many guns in Odesa now, but we do not have a gun culture here like you do,” he says in Russian, pointing to my Texas Longhorns shirt. (“You have Odesa in Texas too,” he later adds. Yes, I reply, though its opera is a tier below yours.)

These courses do not teach combat tactics so much as they teach ordinary citizens the basic “dos and don’ts” of gun use in the event that they are forced to grab a rifle to defend their block from Russian troops. As the organizer puts it, “Our goal is that Odesa’s citizens become safer for each other, but dangerous for the enemy.”

But Viktor, a 63-year-old refugee from the eastern city of Kharkiv, thinks it is unlikely he will ever have to use an AK-47 like the one he is practicing with.

“You never know, but my experience from Kharkiv tells me that most of the battles today are with artillery. That’s how the Russians fight.”

Viktor has not touched a weapon since 1982, when he left Afghanistan after a three-year tour with the Red Army.

“The Russian army is a mess, just like it was in Afghanistan,” he says. “The generals don’t know shit. The soldiers shoot at everything. Nothing has changed.”

I ask him what he thinks, as a Russian speaker from the country’s east, of the official Kremlin line that the invasion is an effort to rescue ethnic Russians from persecution at the hands of Ukrainian Nazis.

He laughs.

“What Putin says about Russia and Ukraine being one family, how he’s here to save us — it’s bullshit. They’ll rather destroy Kharkiv than set foot in the city to fight our boys.”

No journalist arriving in Ukraine today can avoid interacting with soldiers, most likely dozens of them, whether in formal interviews, passing through checkpoints or simply standing in line at a coffee shop. Ukrainian soldiers vary in their demeanor. Some are cold and scrutinize your documents with suspicion, some smile when they see an American passport or give you a fist bump when you greet them with “Slava Ukraina,” and some just look extremely bored. Whatever their attitude, every Ukrainian soldier I have met has been, for lack of a better word, composed.

Mykolaiv is the only place where I meet a soldier who appears on the verge of a mental breakdown.

Some rockets have just hit the Kherson road outside of town, sending me and my translator into a shelter for a few minutes. When we emerge, we run into a young man from an infantry unit stationed nearby who is loading supplies from the local volunteer center into a car to drive back to the front. Over the sound of rumbling artillery and air raid sirens, he stands beside his car speaking excitedly, overly so.

“I served in Donbas before, but this is different,” he says in Russian. “I never shot anyone before this. I see bodies every day. I’m shaking, I have trouble seeing clearly.” He gestures toward a bloodshot eye. “I go to a doctor to get medication for my eyesight, to keep me calm.”

I ask him where the front lines are and he laughs nervously. “They change every 30 minutes.”

He pulls out a map on his phone and shows us the rough contours of the front, which is northwest of Kherson city. But this does not mean Mykolaiv is safe, he quickly adds. I assume he is referring to the artillery strikes, but he is actually talking about Russian saboteurs, whom he says he has personally detained.

“They were here, they came into this area a few months before the war,” he says, his speech increasingly hurried. “They were living here, they were drinking in our bars, they were with our girls, and we found them easily because they were careless. Many of them were alcoholics! They were drawing marks on the road for artillery on the first day of the war. Really, our unit caught them!”

I ask what his unit did with the saboteurs; he offers a casual shrug. “I don’t know what happened to them. We handed them over to the intelligence services.”

Outgoing artillery continues to thunder nearby and a voice crackles over the soldier’s radio, which he seems to ignore. I’m a bit exhausted and struggling to compose a follow-up question, but he seems to be on a new train of thought anyhow.

“If the Russians try to come to Mykolaiv today by road, they’re fucked.”

He starts to laugh in the manner of a man who has not slept in days.

“So they are relying on their rockets and their jets. And we here in Mykolaiv, we hear sirens,” he says.

He lets out a deep sigh, and I think I see his eyes grow moist, though it may be from laughter. His expression is hard to read.

“Sirens,” he repeats. “So many sirens.”

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