After dark, with adrenaline coursing through his veins, Maksim lay with a clutch of fellow Ukrainian volunteers in a shallow trench, waiting for the Russian armored convoy as it lumbered through wintry sleet east of Mykolaiv.
When the lead Russian vehicle was nearly upon them, the Ukrainians launched a barrage of flaming Molotov cocktails, lighting up the armored personnel carrier so it could be directly targeted with a rocket-propelled grenade.
The tactic worked, recalls Maksim, a welder with a taste for dragon tattoos, from his hospital bed days after the attack. His team had stopped the four armored vehicles, and captured or killed their Russian occupants.
Why We Wrote This
Resilience in the face of seemingly overwhelming power is a main theme of this war. Our reporter visited the front lines in a southern city to examine the disparity in motivation between attacker and defender.
Indeed, in the past 12 days, Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers have fended off multiple Russian attacks in and around Mykolaiv, a strategic port city of 500,000 seen as the gateway to Odessa, on the Black Sea.
Maksim was so close that shrapnel from the first RPG round struck the back of his skull. His head is now bandaged, framing blue eyes and a round face with a boyish beard.
“The Russians are nothing; they don’t have any experience,” says Maksim, echoing an increasingly confident assessment shared by Ukrainian commanders and officials here alike.
The 22-year-old, who declined to give a last name, laughs when reminded of his own lack of military experience – he signed up just days before, with seven childhood buddies, to defend Ukraine from what has become a brutal Russian assault that began Feb. 24.
“I went through all levels of Call of Duty!” says Maksim with a smirk, referring to the realistic combat video game.
His fight near Snihurivka village, some 40 miles east of Mykolaiv, was one tiny fragment, on one battlefield, of the response to a multipronged Russian offensive against Ukraine that involves 190,000 troops and is entering its third week.
But any Russian expectations of swiftly toppling the pro-Western government in Kyiv or of overrunning Ukraine’s military defenses have now devolved into siege tactics, heavy shelling, and missile strikes against cities, from the suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, to Mariupol, near the Crimean Peninsula.
Interviews with Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers who have directly fought the Russians on the front lines around Mykolaiv illustrate the growing challenges faced by the Russian advance, and some reasons for nascent optimism on the Ukrainian side.
Ultimately, Russian firepower and manpower far outweigh Ukrainian resources. But those Ukrainians who have taken to the battlefield here describe how the Russian military is much more effective firing at long range than in close combat.
They say Ukrainian artillery has wiped out entire Russian armored units, and especially targeted fuel trucks to stop advances in their tracks.
And after talking to captured Russian soldiers – who are often conscripts, with little understanding of their mission in a foreign country – they say Russian soldiers’ morale is low, with shortages of food and fuel in an unfamiliar and frozen landscape.
They contrast that with Ukrainians who are motivated to defend their own land, know the terrain intimately, and have swiftly escalated defensive preparations.
“Ukrainian troops’ performance is 10 marks out of five,” says Maj. Gen. Dmitry Marchenko, commander of Ukrainian forces defending Mykolaiv.
“Russians don’t know our territory, and their tactics are based on tactics from 1941. Modern warfare is very different from those tactics,” he says. “Luckily, Ukraine chose a European direction; we had a lot of mutual training and instructors from Europe. This gives us an advantage.”
Access to American satellite imagery enables the Ukrainian armed forces to “see even those who go to the toilet,” the general told journalists here Wednesday. Captured Russians said their orders since Monday had been to enter Mykoliav “at any price,” he said.
“Those who give up are guaranteed to be left alive,” said Major General Marchenko. “There are so many of them that we don’t know where to put them.”
Vitalii Kim, the governor of Mykolaiv region, strikes a similarly defiant note, bordering on bravado. On Monday and Tuesday alone, he said, Ukrainian forces had captured 37 Russian soldiers. They were ill-equipped, and “dirty, naked, hungry, asking for food and water,” he told journalists Wednesday.
“If the city is blockaded, we can hold out for two months and we will fight back, because they are weak,” said Mr. Kim. “We are following the overall Ukrainian defensive strategy. If it was up to us, we would show our strength already” and counterattack, he added.
Barricades and checkpoints
Every corner of each intersection in Mykolaiv is piled with used tires and a few Molotov cocktails, whose smoke, when they burn, will block the view of oncoming Russian soldiers in the case of urban combat.
Checkpoints made of concrete blocks, anti-tank barriers, and sandbags have been moved into place. Soldiers along the front lines are armed with anti-tank weapons – some partly visible under tarpaulins – and have dug and reinforced trenches.
Among the soldiers is Artur, who last Sunday single-handedly stopped a Russian Tigr fighting vehicle that had lost its way, and forced four Russian soldiers to give up. The 25-year-old reservist, a trained economist with a slight build, has in the past fought Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region.
Standing beside the burnt remains of the vehicle, his face covered with a black wrap against the cold, Artur describes how he recognized the “Z” symbol on the vehicle, which is used by Russian forces to identify themselves.
He ordered them to surrender, he says, cursing at them when they cracked open the armored door. The Russians, shocked to find a Ukrainian soldier, slammed the door shut and tried to back away. Artur emptied four magazines of bullets – 120 rounds – at them from his AK-47 assault rifle.
“I started shooting, shot at their tires, threw a grenade into it, and the car started burning after that, so they had to get out and give up,” recalls Artur, who didn’t give a last name.
He says he tried not to communicate with the Russians, but says they are generally “too afraid” to engage in close combat. “We won’t stop until we fight them off our land,” he says.
A deadly barrage
Vitalii Nortsov, a junior surgeon in the Ukrainian navy, who was guarding a checkpoint north of Mykolaiv that came under sudden attack, also found his Russian enemies fearful.
The Russians “can only act from a long distance, with tanks and artillery,” he says. “But when they are close, they are weak and they can’t fight. They give up easily.”
Mr. Nortsov says he was knocked off his feet by the first tank round that hit near his checkpoint. Subsequent rounds “were very precise,” killing five of his comrades and wounding him and 10 others.
He is now recovering in the hospital, a bandage over a swollen cheek where shrapnel cut through to his teeth. His thick black beard frames a tanned face, but his forehead is pale from constantly wearing a helmet.
On the sandbags outside the hospital are painted words from a song sung by Ukrainian soccer fans, which during the war has become a common Ukrainian slogan denigrating Russian President Vladimir Putin with a vulgarity.
“It was really hard for them to take that checkpoint; that’s why they were shelling it,” says the heavyset tattooed sailor, who has been in the navy since 2015.
“They have a different strategy,” says Mr. Nortsov. “They are not on their land; they are freezing. … They just shoot and try to demolish everything.”
That’s one reason Ukrainian soldiers say they remain committed to the fight.
“I hope this is over by the time I leave” the hospital, says Mr. Nortsov. “If not, I will go back to the fight.”
Helping doctors cope
That is the spirit that doctors at the hospital say they encounter in wounded civilians and fighters alike – high morale that Russian troops far from home can’t match.
Dr. Fiodorova Valentina, who, like other staff here, has stayed at the hospital for the last 15 days, says wounded Ukrainian soldiers “are very anxious that they are here … and not able to go back” into combat.
“Doctors are crying, and the soldiers say, ‘Don’t worry, we will win,’” says Dr. Valentina. “The soldiers are helping us to cope.”
That optimism comes from what Ukrainians on the battlefield are learning about a behemoth of an adversary so far unable to turn its numerical, hardware, and ordnance superiority into victory.
“Our artillery guys are killing Russians each week, each day, each hour,” says the deputy commander of a National Guard battalion, a captain who gave only his first name, Nikolai.
Wrapped against the cold, the young man’s face shows the wear of years of fighting in the Donbass region, where he says he “protected” Ukrainian citizens in what was largely deemed enemy territory.
“It makes sense today to do what we can, anything, to stop this Russian aggression.”
His guardsmen supported the army unit that was forced in the first days of the war to retreat from Kherson, a city 45 miles southeast of here that remains the only major population center that Russian troops have captured.
Now tasked with protecting key installations in Mykolaiv, he shows awareness of the wider battlefield. Early Thursday morning, south of the city, for example, Ukrainian troops frustrated a Russian attempt to insert troops and captured the chopper’s pilot, Captain Nikolai says.
And Ukrainian shellfire stopped a Russian convoy that had been seen 13 miles north of the city, says the officer, in an apparent bid to surround Mykolaiv, according to open-source geolocation data that was posted on social media. The town’s residents heard outgoing artillery fire multiple times on Wednesday night.
“They have no time to sleep,” says Captain Nikolai.
“I guess this is the place where we will stop the Russians for all time, and make Ukrainian citizens in the south free,” he says of the importance of Mykolaiv. “That is my opinion.”