Fragments from a War Diary, Part #37
Yesterday afternoon I took two colleagues on a tour of central Mykolaïv, the city I used to know so well before the war, to view some of the historical and cultural sites of this fascinating southern Ukrainian city while our convoy vehicles were undergoing maintenance. Although it has lost the majority of its people and many of its bars, restaurants, shops and museums are closed, the historical Habsburg centre of the town remains charming in the autumnal sun, albeit in a desolate, deserted way. It was a good day to go sightseeing. There were no air raid sirens all day, and the city seemed calm.
The incidents of war are all-pervasive. Many houses, hotels, shops and hospitality venues have been boarded up, presumably by their owners, who have temporarily abandoned them and gone to live abroad or in safer parts of the country. Presumably they hope that once the war is over, they will be able to return and reclaim their properties, that will have been undamaged by military conflict and not occupied by squatters. Many other buildings in the centre have had their windows blown out, or have suffered substantial structural damage as they have received direct hits from aerial bombardment.
As always, the city is characterised by the absence of young people and particularly young men. The military presence is not obvious in the city, but one area of the centre near the government building where Mykolaïv’s Governor was almost killed by a Russian Kalibr cruise missile during the Battle of Mykolaïv early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been entirely cordoned off. That building, which appears in the photograph at the beginning of this diary entry, had a huge whole blown in it and now it has been transformed into a monument to the battle in which the Ukrainian Armed Forces repulsed the Russian invaders of the city in just a few days. The area now under cordon remains uninhabitable; the windows of the buildings in the vicinity of the strike have been blown out and due to structural damage there is a risk of some buildings collapsing. Nevertheless on the opposite side of the vast public square, a large government building including the municipal assembly continues to operate with civil servants coming and going. The statue of Lenin that used to adorn the square has been torn down, but other Soviet monuments, particularly to the Great Patriotic War (World War II), remain.
Along one side of the square, that abuts the river, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have lined up a series of burnt out shells of Russian military vehicles that they captured or destroyed during the invasion of Mykolaïv. This motley collection of Soviet-era tanks and armoured personnel carriers, most of which carry a “Z” marking, the standard insignia of the Russian Armed Forces in this conflict, reveals just how ill prepared for the invasion of Mykolaïv the Russian military really was. They attempted to roll aged armour into the city with poor defensive protection and full of troops. These vehicles were shredded by machine gun fire. The tanks were from a bygone age. The Russians presumably used this old, inferior equipment just as a show of force because they did not anticipate any resistance. None of this equipment could sustain direct fire from modern equipment in a contemporary conflict.
Most of the Russian armour was either shredded by heavy guns or it was blown up by mines or short-range missiles and completely destroyed. The seats where the Russian military personnel presumably sat during the invasion of the city are still visible, covered in charcoal. Blood stains can be seen on the windows and the floors of the vehicles. As these vehicles burned while rumbling into Mykolaïv city centre, the soldiers’ deaths must have been short but hellish. I pause to reflect upon their last moments, as some children play games sitting on a tank barrel opposite me. I record a video of the eery scene for my family and friends, while the Ukrainian soldiers on duty in the square look on, entirely nonplussed. The central square in Mykolaïv has been transformed into a monument and trophy collection to the successful defence of the city against what the Russians imagined would be a lightning strike but for which they were manifestly so ill prepared.
The tourist office remains boarded up and closed, and the city’s museums do not seem operational. No tourists come to Mykolaïv these days. All the bars and restaurants I once knew, except one, are closed; there are no visitors whereas once there was a constant stream. The hotels I used to stay in are either closed or garrisoned by the military and with no facilities beyond the bare bones of bare rooms. A couple of good restaurants remain open in Mykolaïv, and they are ones I had never heard of before. A few local businessmen still operate in the region, even though the Russians destroyed the universities, grain silos and other objects of commercial value in the city in the aftermath of their failure to seize Mykolaïv in the early days of their invasion. They have some money to spend, but the streets are almost completely deserted by 8pm. In any event I am usually ready for sleep by 9.30pm. Each day is so tiring that I crawl back to my hotel room and slump into bed with barely an ounce of energy left in my body.
Elsewhere the war rages on in the South. Odessa was struck overnight just yesterday. The grain terminals and port received further damage, apparently from cruise missiles fired from the Crimea region. The goal of this is to prevent Ukraine exporting grain via Odessa port in sufficient quantities to be of economic value - without destroying merchant shipping vessels at sea, which might generate enhanced international outrage. Also the Hotel Odessa, once Odessa’s premier hotel and a candidate for a Kempinski chain renovation, was struck, comprehensively gutting the complex located on a prominent pier by the city’s waterfront. The Russians allege that NATO officials responsible for training the Ukrainian Armed Forces were using it as a base. I have no idea whether this is right but it does not sound plausible. The site of the building is too prominent and vulnerable to attack, and the hotel has been mothballed for several years.
Last night, possibly in retaliation for the attack, Ukrainian-launched British cruise missiles struck the Russian navy’s Black Sea headquarters in Crimea, apparently killing Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the Russian Black Sea commander. If that report is confirmed then it marks a major moral victory for the Ukrainians in terms of their capacity to assassinate senior Russian military commanders. That is the sort of thing that will rattle the Kremlin and the Russian military, and may result in increased purges and enhancing a climate of fear within the officers’ ranks in the Russian military. In Mykolaïv, there was a proverbial bomb at the airport. It seems the Russians are trying to strike the runway, presumably for reasons by now no doubt obvious. The war in south Ukraine is about to enter a determined new phase over the next few weeks, as the Ukrainians muster all their Western-backed military might to stake a territorial claim over Crimea as the front-line fighting winds down due to a deterioration in the weather.
Update 09:14 Ukrainian time 26 September 2023
As a result of the explosions yesterday evening in the vicinity of Mykolaïv airport, the road between Mykolaïv and Kherson is now reported closed and subject to a heavy security presence. For the time being, do not attempt to pass along this road or even to leave the city of Mykolaïv in a southeasterly direction.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.