MYKOLAIV OBLAST – Early on, Ukraine’s south became one of the hardest-hit regions of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Moving out of occupied Crimea, Russians sacked the southern regional capital of Kherson on March 2. Soon, they reached the outskirts of the major port city of Mykolaiv.
The 80-kilometer stretch of land between the two regional capitals became a heavily contested front line, destroying villages en masse and forcing locals to hide in basements fearing for their lives.
“We sleep in the cellar. Myself, my mom, and my child,” said Anna Volynets, a resident of Kotlyareve, a small village located on the front line between Mykolaiv and Kherson.
“They shoot a lot, from that direction,” Volynets pointed in the direction of Russian-occupied Kherson.
Recently, one of the Russian shells hit the path leading to the cellar where Volynets’ family hides.
“If they were on their way to the cellar at the time, they would have been killed,” said Volynets’ sister Iryna Romanova.
“What are those bastards thinking?” Volynets said, emotionally.
Kotlyareve is among the nearly 20 villages located on the front line between Ukraine-controlled Mykolaiv and Russia-occupied Kherson. The village saw advancing Russian troops and was the site from where Russian soldiers shelled Mykolaiv in early March.
Now, the Ukrainian military is pushing the Russians back. The most recently officially liberated village located on the strip is Tavriyske, located around 50 kilometers west of the occupied Kherson.
However, due to the ongoing fighting, Kotlyareve and neighboring villages are on the receiving end of Russian indiscriminate shelling.
As a result of the fighting, Russian artillery has left many villages including Kotlyareve in ruins, with the few residents left, forced to hide in basements and hope for their houses, friends, and family to be spared by the war.
When Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, it struck from several directions, one of them being the Crimean peninsula, occupied by Russia since 2014.
During the initial push, Russian troops, primarily the 22nd Army Corps, crossed into Kherson Oblast from Crimea and swiftly captured the regional capital by March 2, leaving as many as 300 people dead.
According to Oleksiy Danilov, the National Security and Defense Council secretary, authorities are conducting an investigation into why the region was conquered by Russia so fast.
A high-rank military officer, who wasn’t authorized to talk to the press, told the Kyiv Independent that the military command is now looking into several cases of alleged treason.
In April, President Volodymyr Zelensky deranked two generals of the Security Service of Ukraine – Andriy Naumov and Serhiy Kryvoruchko – because they "violated their oath and betrayed their homeland,” according to the president.
Naumov was the former head of SBU’s domestic security, while Kryvoruchko headed the Security Service in Kherson Oblast.
After capturing Kherson, a city of 280,000 people, Russian troops began rapidly gaining more Ukrainian land, moving within days into the outskirts of Ukraine’s main shipbuilding city of Mykolaiv.
Villages of Posad-Pokrovske, Luch, and Shevchenkove, lying near the M-14 highway connecting Kherson and Mykolaiv, were captured with little effort.
Yet, as Russian troops approached Mykolaiv, they were struck with a growing Ukrainian military resistance, something that the Russians didn’t expect to see in early March.
Standing in the open field near Mykolaiv, where Russian rocket launchers are seen destroyed by Ukrainian fire, an officer going by his code name Andrea told the Kyiv Independent that the Russians had no chance to take the city.
According to Andrea, this is due to the Russian army’s corruption, poor training, and lack of understanding of Ukrainian firepower.
“Recently, the 59th Brigade, our unit, detained an enemy subversive reconnaissance group. They got lost and didn't know where to go,” he said.
Intense fighting in the area hasn't stopped since February, with Ukrainian troops slowly liberating village after village. To hold them is the toughest task, Andrea said: “There were cases where we liberated a village, then they captured it again.”
According to Ukrainian authorities and military experts, despite slow Ukrainian progress towards Kherson, the country lacks the means to liberate the city.
“We push the enemy back even considering (our) limited resources. We lack only one thing – long-range (artillery) weapons,” Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to Zelensky’s chief of staff, said on June 16.
Furthermore, Mykolaiv is still being targeted by Russian troops, now primarily with rockets.
In mid-March, Russia fired at military barracks in the city, reportedly killing over 50 people. Ten days later, a Russian cruise missile hit the building of the regional administration, killing 38 people.
Recently, Russia has again intensified its attacks on Mykolaiv.
On June 17, Russian attacks on residential areas killed two people and injured 20. Four days later yet another Mykolaiv resident was killed by shelling.
People in between
With Russian troops on the defensive, those living in between are the primary targets.
Since late April, the Russians have stopped attacking positions of the Ukrainian military, instead “they have fired at civilian areas, houses, infrastructure, and so on,” Andrea said.
“It’s an agony,” he went on.
The Volynets family is among those who stayed in Kotlyareve and are constantly witnessing Russian attacks.
“I’m very worried about everyone, not only about myself but about the child,” Volynets said, hugging her son Oleksandr with tears in her eyes, “worried about everyone who lives here.”
A cashier in Mykolaiv, Volynets lost her job four months ago due to the Russian invasion that forced many businesses to shut down.
Left with no means for survival, she confessed that only humanitarian aid now sustains her family.
“My son wants new toys and to go out and play somewhere. I can’t afford it. I can’t even let him go out to the yard to play in the sandbox,” Volynets said.
“They shoot day and night…you are afraid to go outside, to even go to the toilet,” she went on. “You constantly hold the child next to you, so that he does not go anywhere, because when it flies, you do not know where it will hit.”
Shevchenkove, a village 5 kilometers south of Kotlyareve, is also under heavy attack.
Local resident, Olha Nekrasova, said that the Russians “drive-up constantly and fire on the sly at the village.”
“Every day, there is some kind of battle going on. Simply unbearable,” Nekrasova went on, standing next to the destroyed house of her colleague Anatoliy, a father of two, with whom she works together at a local agricultural company.
A Russian shell hit the house a couple of days back, razing it to the ground, but hurting no one as the families were out.
The agricultural company where they both work is now wrapping up its business leaving Nekrasova, a medical worker, jobless. She said her family survives thanks to humanitarian aid.
Four months of Russian attacks left the villages in between Mykolaiv and Kherson severely damaged and residents stranded without electricity, gas, and running water.
“They repair electricity, and one hour later the Russians damage it again,” said Lybov Suslova, 59, whose house was hit by a Russian shell twice.
Recently, a Russian shell hit a water pipe leaving the people with no water.
Shelling damages a pipe or a cable every couple of hours, said Ihor Frolov, one of the few utility service workers left in Shevchenkove. He is forced to leave the shelter and try to restore the infrastructure.
“We fixed it, two hours and it’s damaged again. We go again, we fix it again,” Frolov said.
His entire family lives in the village and he has a duty to work no matter how hard Russia shells: “My mother is here. Brother. I can't take everything and just leave it.”
“It’s my land,” he said.
The strong attachment to their homes is shared by many residents of the surrounding villages.
“Aren’t you afraid to come here?” Nekrasova from Shevchenkove, asked the Kyiv Independent when we met.
Despite being scared herself, she refuses to leave: “It is our home, one way or another you would have to return here at some point, why leave then?”
Pavlo, a retiree who didn’t provide his last name, said that he owes it to his kids who are fighting on the frontline to keep their house intact. His son was captured defending Mariupol, while his daughter's husband is currently defending the country in the south.
“Our children are at war, how can I (leave), I have to wait for my son here at home. And my wife does the same. We are not going anywhere,” Pavlo said as a new round of shelling began.