KRYVYI RIH, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast – When Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one of the bigger surprises on the domestic political front was the sudden turnaround of Oleksandr Vilkul, once a central figure of Ukraine's pro-Russian political camp.
Vilkul quickly took up a vocal anti-Russian stance and was appointed to lead the military administration of Kryvyi Rih. The industrial city in central Ukraine is the hometown of both Vilkul and President Volodymyr Zelensky.
"The survival of the nation is at stake. It doesn't matter what you believed was the right way for Ukraine's development yesterday. Today we must protect the country, and destroy the occupiers as efficiently as possible," Vilkul told the Kyiv Independent, sitting in his office in Kryvyi Rih in a khaki T-shirt and beanie – a far cry from the suits he used to wear before.
Vilkul says his crisis management of the city has been effective: To prevent Russian troops from entering the city early on, he says he made some quick, but crucial decisions.
“We either blocked or blew up all the bridges and asphalt roads,” Vilkul said of the first days of the invasion. "I was commanded to block the runway at the airport on the second day when one IL-76 and three Russian Sukhoi fighter aircraft attempted to land."
Kryvyi Rih, a city of 634,000 people, has strategic importance and losing it to Russia would have been a disaster, Vilkul believes.
"It is the gate to central Ukraine," he said.
According to Vilkul, by taking Kryvyi Rih, Russian forces would have cut Ukraine’s supply lines to Donbas, the site of the war’s heaviest fighting. “How would arms, personnel, and ammunition get in?"
For over a decade, Vilkul was one of the main players in the pro-Russian political scene in Ukraine.
As a prominent member of the pro-Kremlin Party of Regions, he served as governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and then as deputy prime minister under President Viktor Yanukovych. When Yanukovych fled to Russia during the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014, the party rebranded as the still Russia-friendly Opposition Bloc.
As a member of the Opposition Bloc, Vilkul entered parliament in October 2014. According to leaked audio published by the Censor.Net media outlet right after parliamentary elections, Vilkul allegedly had a celebratory phone call with Vladislav Surkov, then-deputy head of Vladimir Putin's administration in charge of Ukraine affairs.
In the recording, a person whose voice resembles that of Vilkul accepts congratulations on successful elections and agrees to come meet Surkov in Moscow to discuss future collaboration. By then, Crimea was already annexed, and Russia's war in the Donbas had been raging for six months.
In December 2016, speaking at a talk show on the Inter TV channel, Vilkul called the EuroMaidan revolution that ousted Yanukovych “a coup,” following the narrative pushed by the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin politicians in Ukraine. Outraged, other guests left the studio.
Vilkul stayed with the Opposition Bloc for some time. As its member, he unsuccessfully ran for president in 2019 coming in eighth place with 4% of support in the first round. Notorious pro-Russian politicians backed him, including former lawmaker and media owner Yevhen Murayev, who withdrew his candidacy in favor of Vilkul.
But when talking about his past today, Vilkul denies he was ever Russia-friendly.
“Pro-Russian or not pro-Russian. These are all political labels,” he said. “(In the Opposition Bloc), there were different people with different views. Mine have always been pro-Ukrainian.”
In June, a Ukrainian court banned the Opposition Bloc along with other pro-Russian parties. Vilkul said he had welcomed the decision.
“The Opposition Bloc was a dead party already… What is dead may never die,” he added, using a phrase that was popularized by the fantasy drama TV series “Game of Thrones." The rest of the phrase, which Vilkul didn't mention, ends with “But rises again harder and stronger.”
In 2020, Vilkul launched his own political project at the regional level called Vilkul Bloc Ukrainian Perspective. Focused on Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, it presents itself as a party that “does not receive orders from Kyiv.”
First days of war
On Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Vilkul was head of the public council under the Kryvyi Rih City Council, headed by his father, Yuriy Vilkul. The older Vilkul has served as mayor of Kryvyi Rih for over a decade, with a short break.
When Russia invaded, Vilkul boasts of stepping forward to organize the city’s defense.
Two days into the invasion, Vilkul was appointed head of the Kryvyi Rih military administration. But he says that he started giving orders even before the appointment.
In the early hours of the full-scale war, Vilkul said he rushed to his office at the city council and started giving orders from there. The doors would open, Vilkul recalled, and officials and top managers of large enterprises would come in to say they were going to flee. According to Vilkul, he managed to convince several people to stay and help defend the city.
Blowing it all up
Vilkul is an engineer by education. Before entering politics, he worked in top management in heavy industry, including at Metinvest, a steel and mining group belonging to Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov, a major sponsor of the Party of Regions and then Opposition Bloc.
His background came in handy those first days of the invasion, he said. The first idea Vilkul had was to blow up the roads, bridges, and tunnels leading to Kryvyi Rih from southern Ukraine, where Russians were quickly advancing. He did that with help of former colleagues from the mining industry, he says.
"I involved professionals who I knew personally… I approached them directly, and they, of course, helped," he said, adding that he knows “how to work with explosives. It was all carried out under my close control."
Pointing at a map, Vilkul says he was part of a team involved in the destruction of a railway junction in the village of Starosilia in Kherson Oblast to stop Russian troops' advance towards Kryvyi Rih.
"(The Russian troops) began to move a diesel locomotive, three wagons, and three platforms with sand by railway (to attack Kryvyi Rih)," he said, pointing at villages on the border of Kherson and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts, just south of Kryvyi Rih.
In Starosilia, 70 kilometers south of Kryvyi Rih, there was a bridge and a tunnel. Vilkul thought blowing it up would halt Russian troops, and, according to him, it worked.
"Just to be sure, we mixed two tonnes of TNT with an industrial explosive… threw the TNT blocks into the tunnel, unwound the wire, and blew them up with blasting machines," Vilkul said.
"Two tonnes of TNT is a lot," he explained with excitement, saying it was more than enough to blow up the tunnel.
Heavy industry companies like Metinvest and ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih also helped by providing equipment for building defense lines around the city.
“All municipal equipment we have was involved, of course. Plus, we took heavy equipment from the quarries, dug trenches around the city, built fortifications inside it,” Vilkul said.
Some of this equipment helped block the roads leading to Kryvyi Rih from the south. Some of them remain blocked today.
“Where we could, we blocked the roads with BelAZ dump trucks, big bulldozers, shot their tires…$10 million worth of mining equipment was laid to rest there.”
A changed man?
Vilkul is convinced that Kryvyi Rih was among Russia’s primary targets to take over because of its industries and central location.
According to Vilkul, his former allies from the Party of Regions, ex-lawmaker Oleh Tsariov and ex-interior minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, who both live in Russia now, reached out to him, calling on him to surrender and collaborate. He says he refused.
To demonstrate his pro-Ukraine stance even more, Vilkul, a Russian speaker, has recently switched to the Ukrainian language and encouraged residents of Kryvyi Rih to do the same.
“Language is also our weapon,” he said on his Telegram channel in early July, announcing the launch of free classes in the city for those who want to learn Ukrainian.
When asked why he didn’t act as patriotically as now back in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas for the first time, he said that it only “seemed” that he was being unpatriotic.
He, however, acknowledged a change in some of his views.
"Before Feb. 24, I believed that the non-aligned status of NATO was more efficient for us… It was a mistake. Yes, I was wrong," he said, emphasizing that now he is "100% for" joining NATO.
Another mistake, Vilkul said, was his belief Ukraine must implement the Minsk Agreements, a series of treaties brokered by the OSCE, France, and Germany that Russia and Ukraine first signed in 2014 and amended in 2015, aiming to end the war in the Donbas.
“I believed that the path to resolving the situation lies through peaceful negotiations…After Feb. 24, I realized that the path to peace lies only through the battlefield and will be defined by the number of coffins that will be taken from here for Russia,” Vilkul said.
He denied ever being “pro-Russian,” saying that his past political stances were dictated by what he thought was best for the country at the time.
Forgetting past rivalries
Some of Vilkul’s enemies, on the contrary, turned into allies after the war broke out. Among them was Borys Filatov, mayor of Dnipro, a regional center 150 kilometers northeast of Kryvyi Rih.
The two were fierce rivals during the 2015 and 2020 mayoral elections. Filatov won both times, while Vilkul came second in 2015 and third in 2020. During the races, the two didn’t hold back in their public criticism and insults of each other.
Now, it seems, past grievances are all forgotten.
"We beat like one heart… We both protect our motherland."
In April, Filatov also told the Kyiv Independent that he and Vilkul have no disagreements anymore. He said they now work closely together, help each other and speak on the phone several times a day.
In a March interview with Novoe Vremya, Filatov said of Vilkul: “Sasha (the diminutive for Oleksandr) is a complicated person, but he has never been pro-Russian…or anti-Ukraine.”
Others are helping, too. Vilkul said that he has turned to two of Ukraine's wealthiest oligarchs, Victor Pinchuk and notorious Ihor Kolomoisky, for help.
"Nikopol Ferroalloy Plant (co-owned by Kolomoisky and Pinchuk) supplied plates for body vests. I turned to Kolomoisky when we had a fuel shortage, and we got it fast," he said.
The only person Vilkul refused to talk about was President Volodymyr Zelensky, another native of Kryvyi Rih.
He only said the city doesn't get any special treatment because of Zelensky's origin: "I think the president has a special attitude towards all of Ukraine and every city in Ukraine."
Vilkul, however, appears particularly partial to Kryvyi Rih. "We were born here. The graves of our relatives are here. We have nowhere to go."