A Mykolaiv defence commander says Ukraine will win. But not without help — and great civilian loss

As the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv recovers from an airstrike that killed 20 people at a regional administration building Tuesday, residents and local defence units are refusing to cede a city the Kremlin expected to capture within days of its Feb. 24 invasion.

Warning: Story contains photo of a dead body

Cleanup crews sift through the rubble after a Russian airstrike hit the regional administration building in Mykolaiv on Tuesday, killing 20 people. (Jason Ho/CBC)

It's hard to escape the irony as Anatoli Nikolai sweeps up broken glass outside a building that's had its windows blown out in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. 

The sidewalk the 81-year-old is cleaning up is part of Moscow Street.

It's right around the corner from the regional administrative headquarters destroyed by a Russian airstrike on Tuesday, killing 20 people, injuring scores of others and shaking city blocks all around it.

"I can't explain it to myself, why massacres are done by people who are sent here," Nikolai said.  "We are still brothers." 

But trying to tell relatives in Russia what Moscow is doing to Ukraine is like talking to "zombies," he said. 

"I was calling my nephew, and he says, 'I don't believe it. This is your propaganda. This is your troops bombing yourselves.'" 

Anatoli Nikolai, 81, tries to clean up the damage from an airstrike that shook city blocks. (Jason Ho/CBC)

An unexpected and fierce resistance

Mykolaiv is a mainly Russian-speaking city of nearly 500,000 people, although many have left since the invasion began on Feb. 24. The Kremlin expected its troops to meet little resistance here, but instead, the battle for this strategic territory has become entrenched. 

In the past, Mykolaiv was one of the Russian Empire's largest shipbuilding centres and the headquarters of its Black Sea navy for more than 100 years. 

Today, the city enjoys hero status among Ukrainians for fending off — for weeks now — Russian forces attempting to advance west along the southern coast toward Odesa from Kherson, the only major Ukrainian city that's fully under Russian control. 

If Russia were to try an amphibious landing to capture Odesa, Ukraine's largest Black Sea port and a key strategic asset, it would need a supply route from Kherson, most analysts suggest.

But Kherson lies about 70 kilometres east of Mykolaiv and, as fighting continues in the territory between the cities, the Ukrainians claim continued success in pushing back the Russians.   

That success, however, has come at a heavy price. 

The airstrike hit the building just as people were beginning their workday, according to local reports. (Jason Ho/CBC)

On Wednesday, Vitaliy Kim, the governor of Mykolaiv oblast, as the administrative region is known, said that 134 civilians from the region have been killed since the start of the conflict, including six children. 

Kim is widely considered a thorn in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Appointed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and hugely popular, Kim posts regularly on social media, poking fun at the Kremlin and the tactics of the Russians, whom he dismisses as "orcs."   

Governor of Mykolaiv oblast Vitaliy Kim says there have been 134 casualties in the region since the Feb. 24 invasion. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

His Telegram channel has some 700,000 followers, and he starts his videos with "Good day, we are from Ukraine" and flashes a peace sign. 

That laid-back style under pressure has been credited with helping keep people calm. 

'Civilian people are heroes'

Kim says he escaped Tuesday's airstrike at the regional headquarters because he overslept. The missile hit just as people had begun their workday. 

"I don't care about buildings and about papers," he said at a press conference the day after the strike. "The main problem is [the death of] civilian people who are heroes and who [were] working during the war." 

Dr. Andrew Rozhok, chief neurosurgeon at the hospital that treated those with severe injuries, said specialists performed surgery on five people wounded in the attack. 

"These were major operations," he said, noting three individuals were in "extremely critical condition." 

Rozhok said the city's hospitals have been under increased pressure in dealing with civilian and military casualties in recent weeks. 

WATCH | The civilian cost to hold Mykolaiv: 

The costs of one Ukrainian city’s fierce resistance against Russian forces

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Ukrainian forces in the southern city of Mykolaiv have been able to block Russian troops from advancing further, but it’s come at a cost — a Russian airstrike destroyed part of a regional government building in the city on Tuesday, and officials expect attacks to intensify.

The neurosurgeon says that though he's horrified that civilians remain under fire and under siege, he has faith in Ukraine's leadership to defeat Russia. 

"Everything will be fine, everything will be alright," he said. "We have the will, we have diligence and, most important, we want freedom. 

"We want to be free." 

Tires, explosives and Molotov cocktails

That determination can be seen in the piles of tires laid at the ready in just about every neighbourhood across Mykolaiv, with Molotov cocktails placed nearby in case the Russians try to enter the city. 

And locals will tell you that the main bridge across the Southern Bug river, which leads west to Odesa, is rigged with explosives — and is ready to be blown up to prevent the Russians from crossing if it comes to that. 

Some in the city worry the Ukrainian successes around Mykolaiv will inevitably encourage the Russians to use even more brutal tactics to try to capture Odesa.   

Andrey Shevchenko, a local commander with Mykolaiv’s territorial defence units, says he believes Ukraine will win this war, but not without many more civilian casualties. (Jason Ho/CBC)

"They didn't manage to come via our city," said Andrey Shevchenko, a local commander with Mykolaiv's territorial defence units. 

"That's why they're angry with us … and they started bombing and shelling us. In Kharkiv, it's the same," he said referring to the northeastern city along Ukraine's border with Russia, which has been battered by airstrikes since the start of the invasion.

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Shevchenko accuses the Russians of deliberately shelling civilian areas in Mykolaiv and, more specifically, of violating international law by using cluster munitions that send out numerous "bomblets" upon impact. 

In the neighbourhood of Urochyshche Raketne, where many families keep summer homes to plant small gardens, Shevchenko pointed to a metal fence strafed with small holes. 

Two small craters can be seen in the garden on the other side where the munitions are thought to have landed, potentially delivered by a multi-launch rocket system. 

A woman in her 40s was killed in the house next door when a shell went through her roof, Shevchenko said.

A recent Human Rights Watch report also documented reports of cluster munitions attacks in Mykolaiv, including weapon fragments deemed consistent with multi-launch rocket systems.

Firefighters carry a dead body from the rubble of a government building hit by Russian rockets in Mykolaiv. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Shevchenko says Ukrainian troops have pushed Russian positions back from the city to about 40 kilometres away. 

But he also says ground fighting will ultimately prove fruitless unless Western nations agree to "close the skies" to Russian bombardments.   

"We can conquer Russians on land, but not in the air because we have no means of shooting the planes and the missiles," he said. 

Asked if that means Ukraine will lose, he takes a long pause — but then answers that Ukraine will win. 

There is, however, a caveat.

"With big sacrifices," he says, qualifying his answer. "Especially amongst civilians."

WATCH | War takes heavy physical and emotional toll on children:

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Inside Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv, exhausted medical staff remove shrapnel, reset limbs and sew up the physical wounds of war in Ukrainian children. Hospital press secretary Anastasia Magerramova says the hospital is showing images of the children to let the world know the truth about the war in Ukraine.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.