It’s hard to escape the irony as Anatoly Nikolai cleans up broken glass outside a building whose windows were blown up in the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.
The 81-year-old’s sidewalk cleaning is part of Moscow Street.
It’s just around the corner from the regional administrative headquarters destroyed by a Russian airstrike on Tuesday that killed 20 people, injured several others and shook the city blocks around it.
“I cannot explain to myself why the genocide is being carried out by the people sent here,” said Nikolai. “We’re still brothers.”
But trying to tell relatives in Russia what Moscow is doing to Ukraine is like talking to “zombies”.
“I was calling my nephew and he says, ‘I can’t believe it. It’s your propaganda. It’s your army that’s bombing itself.'”
an unexpected and fierce resistance
Mykolaiv is a predominantly Russian-speaking city of about 500,000 people, although many have left since the invasion began on 24 February. The Kremlin expected its troops to put up some resistance here, but instead the battle for this strategic area turned into a tangle.
In the past, Mykolaiv was one of the largest shipbuilding centers of the Russian Empire and the headquarters of its Black Sea Navy for more than 100 years.
Today, the city enjoys hero status among Ukrainians – for weeks now – Russian forces have been attempting to advance along the southern coast from Kherson in the west to Odessa, the only major Ukrainian city that is entirely Russian. is under control.
Most analysts suggest that if Russia tries to make an amphibious landing to capture Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port and Odessa, a key asset, it will need a supply route from Kherson.
But Kherson lies about 70 kilometers east of Mykolaiv and, as fighting between the cities continues, Ukrainians claim to have had continued success in pushing back the Russians.
That success has come at a heavy cost.
On Wednesday, Mykolaiv Oblast’s governor Vitaly Kim said 134 civilians in the region had been killed, including six children, since the conflict began.
Kim is widely considered a thorn in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Appointed and hugely popular by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kim regularly posts on social media, mocking the Kremlin and Russian tactics, dismissing them as “orcs”.
His Telegram channel has about 700,000 followers, and he begins his video with “Good day, we’re from Ukraine” and shows a peace sign.
That laid-back style has been credited with helping keep people calm under pressure.
‘Citizens are heroes’
Kim says he survived an airstrike on the regional headquarters on Tuesday because he fell asleep. The missile hit just as the people started their workday.
“I don’t care about buildings and papers,” he said at a press conference the day after the strike. “The main problem is [the death of] citizens who are heroes and who [were] working during the war.”
The hospital’s chief neurosurgeon, Dr Andrew Rozhok, who treated the critically injured, said specialists operated on five of those injured in the attack.
“These were major operations,” he said, adding that the three persons were in “extremely critical condition”.
Rozhok said that in recent weeks there has been increased pressure on the city’s hospitals to deal with both civilian and military casualties.
look | Citizen cost for holding Mykolaiv:
The neurosurgeon says that although he is terrified that civilians are under fire and siege, he has confidence in Ukraine’s leadership to defeat Russia.
“Everything will be all right, everything will be fine,” he said. “We have the will, we have the diligence and most importantly we want freedom.
“We want to be free.”
Tire, Explosive and Molotov Cocktails
That determination can be seen in the piles of tires prepared in almost every neighborhood of Mykolaiv, with Molotov cocktails kept nearby in case Russians tried to enter the city.
And locals will tell you that the main bridge across the southern Bug River, which leads west to Odessa, is loaded with explosives—and ready to be blown up to prevent the Russians from crossing.
Some in the city worry that Ukrainian successes around Mykolaiv will inevitably encourage the Russians to use even more brutal tactics to try to capture Odessa.
“They did not manage to come through our city,” said Andrey Shevchenko, a local commander of the regional defense units of Mykolaiv.
“That’s why they’re angry with us… and they started bombing and shelling us. It’s the same in Kharkiv,” he said, referring to the northeastern city along Ukraine’s border with Russia, devastated by airstrikes has gone.
Shevchenko accused the Russians of deliberately shelling civilian areas in Mykolaiv and, in particular, of violating international law by using cluster munitions that sent multiple “bombards” upon impact.
In the neighborhood of Urochyshche Raketne, where many families keep summer homes to plant small gardens, Shevchenko pointed to a metal fence with small holes.
Two small craters can be seen on the other side in the garden, where munitions are believed to have landed, possibly delivered by a multiple-launch rocket system.
Shevchenko said a 40-year-old woman died in an adjoining house when a shell passed through her roof.
A recent Human Rights Watch report also documented reports of cluster munitions attacks at MycoLive, including weapons fragments believed to be analogous to multi-launch rocket systems.
Shevchenko says Ukrainian troops have pushed Russian positions about 40 kilometers from the city.
But he also says that unless Western countries agree to “close the skies” to Russian bombing, ground fighting will prove fruitless.
“We can win the Russians on the ground, but not in the air because we have no means to shoot down planes and missiles,” he said.
Asked if this meant Ukraine would lose, he took a long pause – but then replied that Ukraine would win.
However, there is a caveat.
“With great sacrifices,” he says, qualifying his answer. “Especially among civilians.”