On the day we departed from the front line at Zaporizhzhia to near the front line in Mykolaïv, the southern Ukrainian city on the Yuzhny Bug river, the weather was overcast and it had started to rain relentlessly. This for me marks the end of the Ukrainian summer and the slow crawl into the autumnal months when the battlefields on the front line in Ukraine will descend into torrents of mud. With this, the active fighting will slow down as we progress towards winter. The route we decided to take was via Kryvyi Rih. This city, in central Ukraine, is not the most direct route between our starting point and our destination and neither is it entirely safe. Kryvyi Rih was recently the subject of missiles attacks by the Russian Armed Forces, not because it poses any particular strategic significance but simply because it is the home city of President Zelenskiy. This sort of attack is indicative of a regrettable petty spitefulness on the part of the Russian Armed Forces.
North of Zaporizhzhia, as we left on the principal highway remaining for departures from the city, I noticed tank traps and siege structures being built outside the northern suburbs by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Very sadly, this suggests that preparations are being made for the possible fall of Zaporizhzhia; or, at the very least, the possibility of a renewed attempt by the Russian Armed Forces to occupy the city.
Road signs in the Zaporizhzhia region have been obliterated to prevent the Russian Armed Forces from knowing which way to go in the event that they do attempt to push a ground invasion further north than their current positions. There are several military and police checkpoints as one leaves Zaporizhzhia by road, some of which seem to exist to catch drink-drivers (one such driver was being dealt with by the Police at 11am) and others of which exist to enforce national security and martial law.
The drive from Zaporizhzhia, through the rain and with bleak skies overhead, took about eight hours with stops. For much of that period there was no mobile telephone reception; towards the end of the route, as we approached Mykolaïv, our GPS systems went down. This route avoids the front line city of Kherson, in which the Ukrainian Armed Forces occupy the west bank of the Dnieper River, including historical Kherson city centre, once a beautiful Habsburg town; and the Russian Armed Forces occupy the east bank, which is mostly rural and village settlements. We are informed that the only way of crossing between free Ukraine and the lands under Russian occupation at the current time is across this river, typically in a small boat in the middle of the night. This is not something I intend to attempt.
Mykolaïv is the service city for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the aid workers servicing Kherson, that was liberated from Russian occupation in November 2022 and then flooded through Russian malice a few months later by blowing up a dam upstream on the Dnieper River. Kherson itself has no accommodation to speak of and by all accounts the city is in a shambolic state following its occupation by the Russians, its liberation by the Ukrainians, and its flooding by the Russians. Hence Mykolaïv, approximately an hour’s drive away, is the focus of all activities designed to relieve civilian suffering in Kherson and to fortify the front line there where Ukrainian and Russian troops stand off each against the other in an uneasy truce. The Dnieper River is probably the closest the two armies are to one-another without engaging in daily active hostilities. Kherson is by all accounts extremely tense. Mykolaiv is bustling with activity, as the reconstruction of Kherson proceeds; but Mykolaïv remains an active target for the Russian military on a near-daily basis precisely for this reason. Early on during the war, Mykolaïv suffered terribly as the Russians bombarded the town and attempted to seize it in preparation for a push west to Odessa and then to create a land bridge with the Russian-dominated Moldovan para-state, Transnistria (also known as Pridnestrovia).
Mykolaïv has always been a city largely occupied by Russian speakers and known by local people using its Russian name, Nikolaev. It was a closed city in Soviet times; foreigners were not permitted to visit. The Soviet Union’s principal shipyards were located in the city. The invading Russian forces in 2022 thought that the population of Mykolaïv would support Russian occupation, but they were wrong. Half the population, including most young people, fled at the prospect of Russian invasion. As punishment, the Russians heavily bombarded the city in the early stages of the war and the residents had their water supply cut off. The Russians attempted a ground invasion of the city from occupied Kherson to the east; residents reported Russian paratroopers landing in their back gardens. Ultimately the Russian ground invasion of Mykolaïv was unsuccessful; the Ukrainian Armed Forces piled into the city with all their might to protect it, aware of its strategic significance.
Nevertheless the scars of war remain, even though the Russian front line is now about 40km away. Even at first glance, which at the time of writing is all I have had of the city I once knew well before the war, the evidence of destruction is clear. Personnel trenches are dotted around the city. Many buildings in the centre suffer from war damage. There is a heavy military presence on the roads, as convoys of army vehicles go in and out of Mykolaïv, where it would seem that a number of troops are based. Communications are difficult. The internet is not working properly and neither are mobile telephones. The curfew runs from 10pm until 6am but nobody seems to know much about it. The city I remember is far quieter than it used to be. It feels as though it is a ghost town.
Will Mykolaïv prove to be a better bet than Zaporizhzhia as a base, which was starting to feel increasingly dangerous? Only time will tell. Mykolaïv feels rather different: dark, gloomy, depressing and paranoid. On my sole foray outdoors since arriving, the people seemed pessimistic and not particularly eager to talk. The departure from Zaporizhzhia went safely, and tomorrow is a new day. May we praise God for small mercies.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.