Oleksandr Vilkul defended Kryvyi Rih from Russian forces by blocking off the airport – a plan his uncle, a Soviet pilot, gave him
By Joe Barnes IN KRYVYI RIH. 5 November 2022 •
Oleksandr Vilkul had no military experience before the war, yet when he was awoken by a phone call in the early hours of Feb 24, he knew exactly what needed to be done.
Russian missiles had started raining down across the country, including on Kryvyi Rih. As the largest city in central Ukraine, a vital gateway between Kyiv and the east, and President Vlodomyr Zelensky’s hometown, he knew its loss to Moscow so early on would be catastrophic.
When The Telegraph met Mr Vilkul, 48, at a secretive location in Kryvyi Rih recently, he had a map of the country rolled out on the table and was wearing fatigues.
The former pro-Russian political figure, who once called for Ukrainian to be scrapped as the country’s single language, is now head of the city’s military administration – by Mr Zelensky’s appointment.
It’s a remarkable transformation – one that began that February morning as he stood next to his father, acting mayor Yuri, in a quiet room inside the city’s main council building, considering their options.
The idea of defending Kryvyi Rih, a city with no serious military force of its own, from the might of the Russian army seemed impossible.
He remembers those dark, uncertain hours in crystal clear detail.
Silence fell on the makeshift war room as those gathered watched Mr Vilkul light up a cigarette and prepare to lay out his plan.
“Block the runway with anything you can find,” he eventually said.
Those in the room questioned his logic. He remembers them asking: how would closing the landing strip at the local airport protect them from Moscow’s wrath?
To convince them, Mr Vilkul told a story passed down to him from his uncle.
The Soviet military pilot used to entertain a young Mr Vilkul with tales of how Czechoslovakia was captured by the Russians in 1968.
The assault began with a flight from Moscow carrying a Spetsnaz special forces task force requesting an emergency landing at Prague’s Ruzyne airport at 5am due to “engine failure”, he explained.
The airport was quickly overtaken by Soviet forces, paving the way for Antonov An-12 transporters to fly in tanks and artillery.
“The Soviet army captured five airports in Czechoslovakia and thus captured the country,” Mr Vilkul told the war room.
They didn’t need convincing. Four hours later, the runway of Kryvyi Rih’s local airport had been blocked off by dozens of cement mixers, lorries and buses taken from across the industrial city, known as the “steel heart of Ukraine”.
On the first day of the war, nothing happened. Sounds of explosions and the pitter-patter of rain filled the air, but no Russian planes. Had they got it wrong, they wondered?
Then, on the second day, a Russian transport plane loaded with paratroopers and escorted by two fighter jets was spotted barrelling towards the city.
As they descended through the clouds of thick fog that had enveloped the city, the aircraft were forced to dramatically abort their landing attempt just 200 metres from the ground.
It was a success, but they couldn’t enjoy it for long.
“The Russians came within a few hundred metres of the city. They could be seen from the city’s external surveillance cameras,” said Mr Vilkul.
The next task was to secure the city with just 600 ill-equipped volunteers from an imminent land assault.
He ordered a fleet of yellow mining trucks, which weigh 250 tonnes and stand at almost three stories tall, to be dragged out from a nearby iron ore pit to block the roads.
Meanwhile, heavy-duty explosives were used to demolish bridges and tunnels leading into the city, creating a cordon of machinery and rubble.
The convoy of some 50 Russian tanks and more artillery cannons approaching from Crimea didn’t stand a chance, he explained.
“God helped us, because the rain washed away the fields and the tanks could only move along the asphalt road,” he said.
Stuck outside the city, the Ukrainian military spotted their chance to go on the offensive.
Helicopters soon swooped in, destroying the first and last tanks to leave the enemy stranded and forced to flee on foot.
In the aftermath, now iconic videos emerged online of local farmers using their tractors to tow pieces of abandoned Russian kit into the city.
The next time Russian troops arrived at the gates of Kryvyi Rih in early March, they were met by a hail of fire from their own weapons before eventually retreating.
“We were lucky because one of the workers of our military department was once an artilleryman,” Mr Vilkul said.
A dangerous neighbour
Unable to capture the city, Moscow has instead resorted to using its most advanced hypersonic Kinzhal ballistic missiles to attack a nearby dam, which at one point risked leaving 150,000 homes flooded.
The former pro-Russian politician admits that he got his stance on Vladimir Putin wrong.
Ties with Russia, at least while Mr Putin or his allies remain in charge of the Kremlin, will never be the same again, he said.
“I can’t say that Putin has betrayed Ukraine because Russia has always been a dangerous neighbour, but I did not expect the invasion, I didn’t expect Russia to actually go for it,” Mr Vilkul said.
In the months since the war broke out, he has used his industrial ties to help however he can, manufacturing anti-tank hedgehogs from railway parts, making bullet proof vests from locally produced steel and even converting pick-up trucks into mobile rocket launchers.
As the former head of Kryvyi Rih’s Northern Iron Ore Enrichment Plant, he has also ordered excavators from local mines to start to assist Ukrainian troops in digging almost 200 miles of trenches around the city.
Mr Vilkul is, however, modest about his role in the war.
“Everyone is a hero in Kryvyi Rih,” he declared.