Dispatch

Russia’s Road to Odesa Runs Through Mykolaiv

War is intensifying along the Black Sea coast, with one key city standing in the invaders’ way.

Ukrainian army officer Yaroslav Chepurniy
Ukrainian army officer Yaroslav Chepurniy
Russia’s goal is no secret, said Ukrainian army officer Yaroslav Chepurniy in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on March 10. Stefani Glinski for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.

Putin’s War

MYKOLAIV, Ukraine—The rocket hit seconds after the air raid alarm went off at 5:15 a.m., killing 10 soldiers and injuring dozens more at a military base in Mykolaiv, a city just north of the Black Sea that has turned into a new front line in southern Ukraine.

Russian forces, more than two weeks into their latest invasion of Ukraine, are still trying to push toward Odesa, the key Black Sea port and transit hub. If captured, Russia would control Ukraine’s entire coast, essentially cutting off the south from the rest of the country and blocking access to the sea. But to get there, the Russians must go through Mykolaiv.

Fighting here has intensified, including in civilian residential areas. Houses are regularly shelled, roads are bombed, and patients in hospitals report that they have been targeted by cluster ammunition, part of Russia’s pattern of using prohibited weapons in its latest war.

Russia’s goal is no secret, said Ukrainian army officer Yaroslav Chepurniy in Mykolaiv on March 10.

Ukrainian army officer Yaroslav Chepurniy is seen in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on March 10.Stefani Glinski photo for Foreign Policy

MYKOLAIV, Ukraine—The rocket hit seconds after the air raid alarm went off at 5:15 a.m., killing 10 soldiers and injuring dozens more at a military base in Mykolaiv, a city just north of the Black Sea that has turned into a new front line in southern Ukraine.

Russian forces, more than two weeks into their latest invasion of Ukraine, are still trying to push toward Odesa, the key Black Sea port and transit hub. If captured, Russia would control Ukraine’s entire coast, essentially cutting off the south from the rest of the country and blocking access to the sea. But to get there, the Russians must go through Mykolaiv.

Fighting here has intensified, including in civilian residential areas. Houses are regularly shelled, roads are bombed, and patients in hospitals report that they have been targeted by cluster ammunition, part of Russia’s pattern of using prohibited weapons in its latest war.

Soldiers at the military base in Mykolaiv , three days after an attack on March 10.

Soldiers are seen at the military base in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, three days after an attack on March 10.

Ten people died and dozens were injured in a March 7 attack on a military base in Mykolaiv, shown here on March 10.

Ten people died and dozens were injured in a March 7 attack on a military base in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, shown here on March 10.

The town is empty and eerie; the sky overcast. A harsh, icy wind carries fresh snow. Not an hour goes by without the sound of incoming fire and explosions as well as the hissing of outgoing Ukrainian rockets. At night, the attacks pick up, and the sky becomes a constant orange, lit up by relentless explosions. Most houses have their windows crisscrossed with tape or barricaded with wood. Hundreds of people flee every day. Several neighborhoods on the city’s eastern side aren’t accessible anymore due to constant attacks. A soldier at the last front-line checkpoint urges cars to turn around. “It’s not safe,” he said.

When the air raid sirens echo throughout the city—now an almost constant sound—residents are barely deterred. “Of course, we’re scared, but there’s nothing we can do,” said Oleg Oganov, a 44-year-old investigative journalist living in Mykolaiv. “The city doesn’t really have shelters, so there’s no place to hide.”

Russia’s goal here is no secret, said army officer Yaroslav Chepurniy, and as Odesa prepares for a possible onslaught, Mykolaiv is already bearing the brunt. Chepurniy, who is deployed at the base that was targeted a week ago, admits that his soldiers are scared but determined to push for victory. They’re not alone.

Anthony originally came to Ukraine from Dallas to party and has since joined the army, photographed on March 10.

Anthony originally came to Ukraine from Dallas to party and has since joined the army, photographed on March 10.

Anthony, a 23-year-old American from Dallas, came to Ukraine eight months ago, initially to “just party.” A dual citizen—his mother is a Ukrainian from Luhansk, a city in the disputed eastern region of Donbass—he joined the Ukrainian army “right before the war.” He didn’t imagine he’d be signing up to fight the Russians.

Anthony was sleeping in the barracks on March 7 when the Russian airstrike hit. Since then, the war in Mykolaiv has only gotten closer. The barracks are now destroyed, and most of the soldiers sleep outside the base to mitigate further casualties. “I heard a loud bang, and everything around me started collapsing,” Anthony said. “Now, everyone is just nervous. Whenever the air raid alarm goes off, people just panic. But the resolve to fight is still there.” He asked to withhold his last name for security reasons.

Odesa, an hour’s drive to the west, depends on that resolve. But the terrain is hard to defend.

Odesa, the key Black Sea port and transit hub west of Mykolaiv, is preparing for war. The city was quiet on March 12.

Odesa, the key Black Sea port and transit hub west of Mykolaiv, Ukraine, is preparing for war. The city was quiet on March 12.

“There are a lot of open fields and flat territory, so if the Russians bump into Ukrainian defenders, they might try to circumvent them instead of fighting them,” said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Some Russian forces are trying to bypass Mykolaiv, whereas others are engaged in active fighting there. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are trying to keep the Russians from crossing the Southern Bug, the main river dividing Mykolaiv and one of the last major hurdles on Russia’s way to Odesa.

“They want the coast, but we’re still in the way,” said Anastasia Gatsuks, medical director at one of Mykolaiv’s main hospitals. Having seen the images of a bombed-out maternity clinic in the eastern coastal city of Mariupol, Gatsuks doesn’t want to share her clinic’s name. She’s afraid it could become another target of Russian strikes.

The 37-year-old’s neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of the city has already been shelled, and she has since moved downtown with her 4-year-old son, often sleeping at the hospital. Since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, hundreds of patients have arrived at her clinic, some of them dead on arrival. Some are getting better.

Upstairs in a brightly lit room overlooking the gloomy, snow-covered city, Sergey Trofimenko and his wife, Ina, both 47, are recovering from shrapnel injuries after several bombs hit their suburb of Voskresenske. Their house is damaged, though not completely destroyed.

“I saw the bombs fly our way and had a second to close the door and shelter. I’m certain it was cluster ammunition,” Sergey said, his left leg in a cast. His wife threw herself over the couple’s 17-year-old son. Even after the attack, she can’t tolerate the thought of Russians taking her city.

“They won’t come here. Before they take the city, we will fight,” she said. “Slava Ukraini!”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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