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Ukraine yesterday said it destroyed bridges and ammunition depots and pounded Russia command posts as its long-awaited counter-offensive to try to turn the tide of war gathered pace.
The new push in the south to recapture the Kherson region is seen as the ‘third chapter’ in the battle with Putin’s troops, which is in its seventh month.
Two months in the planning, initial forays broke through the enemy lines on Monday before Kyiv yesterday reported ‘heavy fighting’ in ‘almost the entire territory’.
In retaliation, Moscow ordered strikes on Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, killing five, following earlier attacks on Mykolaiv. The Mail’s Richard Pendlebury reports from the battlefront…
The time is a little after 3pm on a drowsy summer’s afternoon when the Russian response to Ukraine’s counter-offensive falls upon Mykolaiv.
We are driving along a tree-lined boulevard in the centre of this battered, front-line city searching for our night’s accommodation. Suddenly and without warning, there is a tremendous detonation, apparently right above us, which makes my ears buzz. And another. And now the placid scene around us begins to fall apart.
A mother and daughter appear from a side street, running as hard as they can, hand-in-hand. The girl — perhaps nine or ten — is wearing a sun dress and looks terrified.
The woman’s face has a grim, set, expression which says: ‘I must get my child to safety.’
Her daughter’s feet barely touch the pavement as they fly past us. A group of women who, a moment ago, were chatting on benches outside a florist’s shop are now on their feet, scattering in every direction. What was already a near empty boulevard is now deserted.
More apocalyptic bangs. ‘Outgoing local air defence,’ suggests one of my companions. Then a deep thud from a few streets away that is definitely not outgoing. Belatedly, the city’s air raid sirens begin to wail, accompanied by a hundred triggered car alarms.
A huge column of greasy grey smoke is rising and expanding sideways above the rooftops of our district and the sky is filled with birds. We tumble out of the car into the dubious shelter of a yard surrounded by Soviet-era apartment blocks.
Oleksandr Shulga surveys the wreckage of his home. The time is a little after 3pm on a drowsy summer’s afternoon when the Russian response to Ukraine’s counter-offensive falls upon Mykolaiv
Another loud explosion that also seems directly overhead causes me to flinch; my arms instinctively jerk upwards as if I am a puppet on strings. I think how foolish I must look. But the sound is so sudden and close the effect is visceral.
On a balcony above me an old man is shaking his fist at the sky. Since Russia invaded, his besieged city has been spared air strikes or artillery and missile bombardment on only 26 days, I am told by a military source.
Some 133 citizens have been killed, many more injured. In March, a Russian attempt to assassinate the region’s outspoken, Putin-baiting governor, Vitaliy Kim, saw 37 administrative staff die in one air strike alone.
Monday’s missile barrage, in which the Mail team was caught, also caused heavy civilian casualties. It hit Mykolaiv hours after Ukraine’s military launched a major counteroffensive towards the Russian occupied city of Kherson, 30 miles from here.
It was reported yesterday that the Ukrainians have already punched a ten-mile corridor through the Russians’ first line of defence. This southern front line has emerged only recently as the war’s key sector.
Mykolaiv is the main city in a largely Russian-speaking region. But it did not welcome the invaders with flowers. Instead, defenders — many of them volunteers — dug in and halted the Kremlin’s intended advance from Crimea along the Black Sea coast to capture Ukraine’s main port of Odesa.
Now Mykolaiv and the surrounding area is the springboard for this major counter attack.
Some 20,000 Russian troops are thought to be based in or around Kherson city, which stands isolated from the main body of Kremlin forces that are on the west bank of the Dnieper river.
Will the developing Ukrainian offensive see these formations cut off and effectively destroyed?
In the past month the Ukrainians have been attacking the bridges across which these forces are resupplied, using American-donated HIMARS, the very long-range and deadly accurate rocket launchers.
But yesterday footage on social media appeared to show heavy exchanges of gun and rocket fire within Kherson’s city limits. As yet it is impossible to clarify whether Ukrainian troops are already inside the first population centre in the country to have fallen into Russian hands.
Monday’s missile barrage, in which the Mail team was caught, also caused heavy civilian casualties. It hit Mykolaiv hours after Ukraine’s military launched a major counteroffensive towards the Russian occupied city of Kherson, 30 miles from here. An injured woman is seen weeping
The Russian-appointed deputy leader of occupied Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, stated that there was ‘no problem’ and the Ukrainian attacks were ‘fruitless’.
His message was undermined by the fact — judging by his backdrop during video addresses — he appears to have been speaking from a five-star hotel in the Russian city of Voronezh, more than 100 miles from Ukraine and almost 500 miles from Kherson.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Ukraine presidency said: ‘Heavy fighting is taking place in almost the entire territory of the Kherson region. The Armed Forces of Ukraine launched offensive actions in various directions.’
In his latest broadcast President Zelensky warned: ‘If they want to survive — it’s time for the Russian military to run away. Go home . . . Ukraine is taking back its own.’
Just before the counter-offensive began, I travelled along the Black Sea coast to the southern front.
Off the once busy commercial port of Odesa — more than two hours to the west of Mykolaiv — the shimmering sea was empty save for the silhouettes of two bulk grain carriers waiting to enter and pick up their cargo. Yesterday, the first shipments of grain from Ukraine since February finally arrived in Africa following a Turkish-brokered agreement to open a safe shipping lane through the Russian blockade. Much of the developing world relies on Ukrainian grain and has suffered indirectly because of the invasion.
Evidence of this ongoing global food crisis could be found all along the road between Odesa and Mykolaiv. Hundreds of fully loaded grain transporter lorries were parked nose-to-tail on the verge, waiting in the blazing sunshine. ‘I have been here seven days,’ one driver told me, ‘but some guys have waited 28 days in the queue. In peacetime, the cargo ships were waiting for the lorries to arrive. Now the lorries wait for the ships.’
Mykolaiv sits on a peninsula formed by the confluence of two rivers, a few miles from the sea. It is a shipyard hub and in Soviet times its workers built the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s former flagship Moskva, that was sunk by Ukrainian missiles on April 14. Before the invasion the city had a population of half a million. Now fewer than half of them remain.
The nearest Russian lines are well within artillery range. There is no running water during the day and only salt water at night.
Those few people one sees on the street are usually either carrying plastic containers of water or queuing at stand pipes. It is very hot.
I arrived in town with an appointment to meet its governor, Vitaliy Kim. By necessity the details were not pre-arranged lest they became known in the wrong places. I am directed to a shady, cobbled lane where a youngish man in green fatigues is loitering as if waiting for orders from his captain. It is only when he steps forward to greet me that I recognise it is the high-ranking pimpernel himself.
Rocked by the blasts: Richard Pendlebury on the front line. It was reported yesterday that the Ukrainians have already punched a ten-mile corridor through the Russians’ first line of defence. This southern front line has emerged only recently as the war’s key sector
Kim is dressed in the quasi-military fashion of Volodymyr Zelensky. And like his President, if he is to stay alive, he has to stay one step ahead of the Russians.
He is said to be the first person to have described the invaders as ‘orcs’, after the ugly and malevolent monsters in The Lord Of The Rings. This and other jibes no doubt contributed to what happened to the regional administrative HQ building at 8.44am on March 29.
‘The missile was a Kalibr of an expensive kind and it exactly came through the window of my office on the fourth floor,’ he says with an ironic smile. Then, with deadly seriousness: ‘Everyone from my team died.’ His own survival is the stuff of legend — and conflicting explanations.
Kim has said in the past that he was not at the office then because he had ‘overslept’ that morning. I was also told by a military source here that the Russians struck too early because Ukraine — unlike Moscow — had switched to summer time the previous night. The Kremlin thought it was 9.44am in Mykolaiv, which should have been well into the working day for the hated Governor Kim. Now he offers me a third version: ‘We moved our scheduled morning meeting back 30 minutes. It was supposed to start at 8.30am.’
How did the Russians know of the meeting? ‘I cannot say if there were traitors directly involved but people can give away such information unwittingly and that is enough for the enemy to strike.’
I ask him about the rumours of an imminent counter-offensive which — I did not know it then — was to begin in less than 24 hours. ‘I do not know the detailed strategy of the main military commander here, but I can just tell you that it is working,’ he says.
‘We still need more ammunition, precision and long-range weapons. We have the will and the people. But we need Western experience and equipment to perform the task. We are on our own land. Every citizen is helping our military. We know the winter will be hard but it will be harder for the occupiers.’
Mykolaiv is the main city in a largely Russian-speaking region. But it did not welcome the invaders with flowers. Instead, defenders — many of them volunteers — dug in and halted the Kremlin’s intended advance from Crimea along the Black Sea coast to capture Ukraine’s main port of Odesa
And with that, after an enigmatic smile, and a handshake, one of Ukraine’s most marked men strolls nonchalantly off into deserted Mykolaiv.
His devastated administrative HQ has become iconic, but it will still have to be demolished. The gigantic hole punched into it by the air-launched missile reminds me of the open mouth in Munch’s painting The Scream.
Everything inside is much as it was after the victims were removed. Deep glass crunches underfoot and there are still bloody hand prints on the whitewashed corridor walls where victims staggered from the wrecked rooms.
Corridors are littered with files, dead pot plants, kettles and white boards; the paraphernalia of office life.
My guide is a territorial defence soldier called Dymtro who ‘picked up a rifle for the first time in February, aged 43’. If it weren’t for the invasion he would, on this lovely afternoon, be ‘sailing my boat with my father’.
In fact his family offers a far deeper example of how Putin’s adventurism has alienated the Russian-speaking population here. As we walk down Mariupol Street — recently changed from ‘Moscow Street’ — he explains: ‘We here have a lot of cultural and family relations with Russia. My father’s brother lives in Russia and one of my cousins is a Russian army officer.’
But you don’t hate your uncle? ‘Of course I hate him!’ he replies. ‘I know him very well. Every year he came here and saw no Fascists but still he supports Putin. We are not being driven away from our language by this war, but from Russia. There are some in the city who still support Russia yes, but they are very few.’
The following morning, the Ukrainian counter-offensive begins. We pass two of the precious HIMARS — Ukraine has only 16 — travelling in convoy on a main road between fire missions. There is a febrile atmosphere in the city.
Reservists who had expected to spend their day on checkpoint duty in the city are being redeployed to the front to exploit the early successes.
Then the Russians strike back at the heart of Mykolaiv. Within the space of a few minutes 12 missiles evade local air defences and fall in our district.
Two people are killed and two dozen injured. The sirens wail and a disembodied male voice repeats the mantra: ‘Go to the bunkers. Take food and water and your documents and go to the bunkers.’
The smell of burning pervades the sultry air.
‘They are punishing us because we are winning,’ a woman tells me in the stairwell of our block.
In a lull between alarms a horse pulling a white, Cinderella-style landau goes clip-clopping past below my window not once but twice. My translator Oleksandr suggests — only half-jokingly — that it is either a figment of my imagination, or a sign that the end of the world is close.
Some have very lucky escapes indeed. CCTV footage caught the moment when, just as civilian traffic — including a blue trolley bus — was crossing a bridge over the Inhul River, 400 metres from our own location, a heavy missile narrowly missed the structure and exploded in the waters beneath.
Presumably, the Russians were aiming to destroy the bridge so that it could not be used to transport supplies for the counter-offensive. In spring, the Ukrainians had rigged these same bridges for demolition to stop the Russian advance. Now the boot is on the other foot.
Later there were more Russian strikes and another fatality in the centre of Mykolaiv — a 48-year-old handyman, killed by cluster munitions.
The tide of war may be turning in the south but Mykolaiv, the Russian-speaking city that ‘saved Ukraine’, continues to pay a heavy price.