Residents brace for same relentless siege as Mariupol, as Kremlin tries once again to capture the Ukrainian port city
ByColin Freeman IN MYKOLAIV 16 May 2022 •
Nobody really knows why Russian forces decided to blow up the Golden River pub last month. A beach bar in Ukraine’s port city of Mykolaiv, it poses no obvious military threat – and nor do its boozy punters, who still drink there despite half the premises being reduced to rubble.
The best any customer could guess was that the Russians were themselves drunk when they aimed the missile. But even the more sober assessment of Capt Dmytro Pletenchuk, Mykolaiv’s military spokesman, was not exactly flattering to the Russian artillerymen.
“That pub used to be called The Bombardier,” he told The Telegraph. “I can only think that the Russians saw it on their maps and thought it was a genuine military installation. Why else use an expensive missile to hit a pub?”
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t the first missile to shake Mykolaiv in recent weeks. A shipbuilding city on Ukraine’s Black Sea, it is pummelled most days by Kremlin forces pushing in from the Russian-occupied port of Kherson, 40 miles east.
Shells have targeted water pipes, hospitals and electricity stations, and also hit residential areas – killing more than 40 people in the past month, and wounding many more. The weary Captain Pletenchuk has begun to detect a pattern.
“The Russians rotate new guys in every fortnight, and when they start, they’re always very enthusiastic, firing lots of bombs,” he said wearily. “Then they quieten down when they realise we can locate their artillery and fire back.”
His seen-it-all tone reflects the fact that, in a sense, Mykolaiv has indeed seen it all already. At the start of the war, the town of 400,000 repelled a Russian attempt to capture it, giving Ukraine one of its first significant victories.
Now, though, Russian forces are trying anew, viewing Mykolaiv as a strategic town to capture en route west to Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea trading port.
The main battle action is currently east of Mykolaiv, where the farmlands that lie towards Kherson have become a modern-day Flanders. The front line swings back and forth, neither side prevailing.
This month, though, has seen intensified shelling of both Mykolaiv and Odesa, plus the deployment of Russia’s entire Black Sea submarine fleet, which put to sea from Crimea last week. The six submarines carry cruise missiles, far more accurate than the ones lobbed at the Golden River bar.
‘They want to turn this city into a second Mariupol’
At dawn on Monday morning, a fresh salvo of missiles hit the city, wrecking a block of flats and hospitalising a passer-by, who left a long trail of blood down a side road. “They want to turn this city into a second Mariupol,” said resident Mikhail Ghorbenka, 46. “It is just constant – nobody can live or work while this is going on.”
Russian officials have told Mykolaiv’s leaders to expect the same relentless siege as Mariupol. They gave notice of their intentions six weeks ago, when a missile destroyed Mykolaiv’s regional governorate building, killing 36 staff as they arrived for work.
“The Russians thought they were hitting it at 8am, when the building would still be empty, but the clocks had just changed for summertime and the missile hit at 9am when it was busy,” said Capt Pletenchuk, as he showed The Telegraph round the governorate’s devastated shell. Vitaly Kim, the regional governor, only avoided the strike because he overslept that day.
Another local official who is now wary of missile strikes is Oleksandr Syenkevych, Mykolaiv’s mayor, who sleeps in a different house every night. He also packs a pistol, lest a Russian snatch squad come looking.
“The Russians try to kidnap mayors to exchange for prisoners of war,” he said during a coffee-stop interview at a downtown cafe. “They’ve even sent me text messages saying that if I want Mykolaiv to avoid the fate of Mariupol, I should surrender the city. They think we’re totalitarian like them, that I can decide for every citizen.”
A former tech entrepreneur, Mr Syenkevych, 40, entered politics in the wake of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014, which ousted a corrupt pro-Kremlin government. He sees himself as part of a new generation of younger politicians, ousting a Soviet-era old guard who tend to be closer to Russia.
Many residents still pro-Russian
He admits that many Mykolaiv’s residents remember the Soviet Union fondly because it built both the shipyard and the jobs.
“Many people here associate the Soviet Union with economic progress, and independent Ukraine with lack of progress,” he said. “I’d say 25 per cent of Mykolaiv is still pro-Russian, although right now we are too militarised for them to cause any problems – anyone who does so risks getting shot or jailed.”
The Russian invasion, he believes, has also made many Russia sympathisers think again. He quotes a saying often attributed to the gangster Al Capone: “A bullet changes a lot in your head, even if it just hits you in the butt.”
Mr Syenkevych does not expect to be sleeping back under his own roof anytime soon. The war, he reckons, may rumble on till next spring, and in the meantime, Mykolaiv’s death toll – already 96 civilians dead and nearly 500 injured – will likely rise.
Britain, he says, has set an “example” to the Western world by providing weaponry to halt the Russian advance. But in the end, he adds, it is Western democratic values that are Ukraine’s best long-term defence.
“This isn’t really a war between Russia and Ukraine, it’s a war between two civilisations,” he said. “One is Western, which we want to be part of, which finds cancer cures, creates the internet, and which takes a lead on problems like climate change. And another is Russian civilisation, which doesn’t even feel like a civilisation right now.”