Ukraine’s Mykolaiv holds the line against Russian forces and delays assault on Odessa

Five-year-old Diana with her father, Vitaly, in a basement shelter in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on March 14. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — At the front line of the battle for southern Ukraine, Diana was having her birthday party in the unfinished basement of an apartment building. She turned 5 on Monday. In the absence of a cake, her parents stuck a candle in a mandarin orange and told her to make a wish.

After she blew out the flame, Diana told them she asked for the war to end soon.

“Come see the basement, that’s where we live,” she said, bounding down the stairs that lead to the space that’s now a bomb shelter for the neighborhood.

Some people have brought down cots and air mattresses to place on the cold earthen ground. It’s dark. The fighting in the distance during the day sounds like far-off thunder. At night, the bombardment is louder and closer.

One elderly woman has her dog with her. Diana has her stuffed bear.

This apartment building complex in southeastern Mykolaiv is in range of Russia’s multiple-launch rocket systems located in nearby Kherson, the first significant city Moscow’s military captured since its invasion of Ukraine started nearly three weeks ago. Now Mykolaiv, a city of about 500,000 people on Ukraine’s Black Sea shoreline, is all that’s standing in Russia’s way of an assault on the major port city of Odessa.

Mykolaiv is all that stands in the way of Russian forces as they try to advance on Odessa. The city is holding the line, but families feel trapped. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

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But despite more than a week of heavy bombardment, Ukraine’s forces in Mykolaiv have remarkably thwarted Russian advances — a major blow to the Kremlin’s apparent plans for an attack on Odessa, an economic lifeline for Ukraine as one of the largest Black Sea ports. Though Russian warships have lingered off the coast of Odessa, local officials have said the Russians are probably delaying any amphibious assault until they can get more ground support from their forces in the east.

That is how Mykolaiv has become a crucial roadblock. The region’s governor, Vitaliy Kim, told The Washington Post on Monday that some Russian forces were beaten back from here and are currently located in Kherson, about 40 miles to the southeast. They’ve repeatedly shelled the city, including civilian residences, with suspected cluster munitions, but have been unable to move into Mykolaiv itself.

Ukraine’s stand at Mykolaiv underscores how Russia’s advance in parts of the country has stalled, making this war more of a fight than many expected. Russia has more manpower and firepower, but it has been bogged down by what U.S. officials have said was a poor military strategy and basic logistical and supply issues.

“The forces that they sent, they thought they’d easily march through here because this was a region that didn’t have enough military presence,” Kim said. “But we’ve showed them the opposite, with our soldiers and our civilian defense, that they have no business roaming around on our land.”

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Kim has become the face of Mykolaiv’s resistance and a major national figure. Perhaps inspired by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s powerful video messages from downtown Kyiv, Kim cheerfully addresses Mykolaiv citizens with similar short updates posted to his Telegram channel every few hours. His feed has 700,000 subscribers, more than the city’s population.

“Good day, we are from Ukraine,” Kim starts every video, holding up a peace sign. On Monday, he told viewers that an air-raid alert in the city would be extended because the Russians had heavily shelled the region overnight and “we don’t know what’s in the head of those dummies.” The day before, Kim thanked everyone for the birthday wishes — he turned 41 — and said, “how dumb these occupiers are, it’s just a catastrophe.”

“They go from one direction and get bashed, they go from another direction and get bashed and then go from a third direction and get bashed as well,” he said with a grin.

His optimistic nature in the face of an assault on his city has resonated with Ukrainians and turned Kim into something of a celebrity. At a military checkpoint at the edge of the city, a soldier commented that meeting Kim now is “like meeting Biden.”

“It just seems like everything is relaxed and easy here, but this is hard work every day,” Kim told The Post. “But there’s no need to look sad or feel tired over it.”

Like other cities across Ukraine, Mykolaiv has adapted to wartime. Movements across the city’s bridges are regulated through checkpoints. If Russians manage to gain ground here, the bridges might be blown up to prevent any further advance. Stacks of tires are positioned around streets with molotov cocktails, or petrol bombs, beside them, ready to be set ablaze if Russian troops approach.

There are also signs of the fight that has already taken place. On one downtown street, the glass facade of a furniture store was shattered. Two homes across the street have had the roofs burned off. This is where Ukrainian and Russian armored vehicles had a shootout in the first days of the war and where the Ukrainians said they destroyed the Russian column. The damage left behind is at once a reminder of the war’s toll and a proud symbol of a small victory.

At a pharmacy down the road, a shell landed in front, shattered the sign and knocked out power. Two days later, the pharmacy continued its work, powered by a generator. The local zoo, which boasts the most animals of any zoo in Ukraine, has had four projectiles land on its property. The animals have not been evacuated and are being fed daily, said Volodymyr Topchiy, the zoo’s director.

A rocket that landed on the grounds on Feb. 27 is now on display in the zoo’s museum. Another still-unexploded ordnance is nestled into the ground in a bustard’s dwelling.

“This is such a rare bird; there are only two in Ukraine,” Topchiy said. The bird was unharmed and remains in its home — along with the shell.

The rocket appeared to carry cluster munitions, according to two former military bomb technicians who reviewed photos of it. The cluster bomblets are indiscriminately released over a wide area and have a high dud rate, posing a threat to civilians who may encounter them later on.

“I’m getting the sense that Mykolaiv is getting used to the shelling and is ignoring it,” Kim said in his Tuesday morning video message. “At the moment, everyone’s calm.”

In the city’s Korabelnyi district, a shell from a Russian multiple-launch rocket system, which has a range of about 50 miles, landed on an apartment building, causing one whole side to catch fire. Alexander Zadere lived in the building next door, so he and his son managed to get his 83-year-old mother out of the apartment where she had lived for more than 50 years. She was shocked and scared but not injured.

The wall that faces outside was gone. The flames peeled the paint off the walls. The television was destroyed, but the remote resting on the charred couch was undamaged.

Zadere has already turned his attention to renovating the place for her, sure that there is a future here. The money he had been saving for a country house will now be used to rebuild here.

“As a Mykolaiv native, I can tell you they won’t pass through us,” he said. “Victory will follow us.”

Diana’s bunker birthday party was taking place in the apartment building next door. The one open store in the area sold chocolate eggs with a toy inside, so that was the present Diana’s grandmother bought her.

Diana was cheerful, despite the war all around her. She sang a song about cats and danced outside while it was temporarily safe to leave the underground dwelling. She’s been sleeping through the night. Her parents smiled and said they hoped Diana wouldn’t remember this when she grew up.

They worried about how much more their city could withstand.

“If Mykolaiv goes, it’s not clear that other cities will hold for as long as this one has,” said Sveta, Diana’s mom. “We’re getting used to it, but we don’t want to. We don’t want to live with this pain and fear.”

Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.