Ukraine’s fate​ won’t be decided in Donbas, where the biggest part of Ukrainian and Russian forces are concentrated, but hundreds of miles away, on the more obscure battlefield of the south-west. The country’s future turns on Russia’s ability to hold on to a piece of land on the western side of the Dnieper, between two port cities: Russian-occupied Kherson, and Mykolaiv, less than forty miles north-west. If Ukraine manages to sweep the Russians from Kherson, the western half of the country will be protected by the great barrier of the Dnieper, Putin will suffer a politically damaging defeat and Kyiv will be closer to freeing its biggest ports from Russian blockade. European leaders sceptical of Ukraine’s ability to resist the invaders may think again. If, however, Russia clings on to its western bridgehead, it will retain the potential to swallow more of Ukraine, threatening Mykolaiv, Odesa and the rest of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast all the way to the Danube, and, eventually, the whole country.

Mykolaiv is less than twenty miles from the front line, if that is defined as an imaginary set of points halfway between the trenches where Russian and Ukrainian troops are dug in. The city is still within the range of Russian conventional artillery, and vulnerable, like other Ukrainian cities, to missile attack. It is bombarded every night. I often wake up in the early hours for no obvious reason, and when I woke at four a.m. on my first night in Mykolaiv, I wasn’t sure whether it was one of those random awakenings, or whether air-raid sirens had stopped just before I came out of my dreams. I lay in complete darkness and complete silence. The bangs, when they came, were firm and powerful, but quite distant and muffled, partly because the windows of my hotel were covered with thick squares of chipboard to prevent the glass shattering if a missile landed nearby. When I arrived my driver had been keen to show me the ruins of a different hotel, destroyed by a Russian missile. He had been thinking of suggesting I stayed there. Another hotel, close to the one I ended up in, was hit in a different attack. I would catch sight of the smashed concrete of its sagging pediment when I went to the shops.

The targets that morning had been two of the city’s universities. I went to see one of them, V.O. Sukhomlinsky National. All the windows of its main building, a late 20th-century concrete block, had been shattered, and a turret on one corner of the façade was teetering (later, I saw firemen apply the coup de grâce with a looped cable). The ground was covered in a dusty mess of white bricks and plane tree leaves. The students were on holiday, but a huddle of academics stood in the bright sunshine regarding the damage. The women summoned a pale, purposeful determination, but the deputy rector, Anatoly Ovcharenko, displayed a deeper level of shock. ‘Defenders,’ he said sarcastically. ‘The Russians defend us.’ He laughed joylessly. He had heard there were six missiles.

I asked him why he thought the Russians might have wanted to fire half a dozen rockets at his university.

‘Only one reason,’ he said. ‘“I want Ukraine.” That’s it.’

There were pieces of shrapnel all over the place, but it bothered Ovcharenko that on one chunk of metal you could see the year of the missile’s manufacture, 1988, when Ukraine and Russia were still geopolitical roomies in the crumbling dormitory of the Soviet Union. Could it have been one of the weapons Ukraine transferred to Russia for decommissioning when it gave up its inherited nuclear warheads in the 1990s?

‘What now?’ I asked, rather tactlessly, meaning for the university.

‘There are many questions, of which one is “What now?”’ Ovcharenko said. ‘Putin knows what’s next.’

One of the minor blast effects is irony. The other university hit that Friday was the Admiral Makarov Shipbuilding University, once the centre of naval architecture in this city of former military shipyards. The university is named after Stepan Makarov, an officer in the Russian imperial navy, born in Mykolaiv and killed in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War. Also named after Makarov is the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, a frigate that has been firing missiles at Ukraine. Whether Admiral Makarov, the ship, is responsible for bombarding Admiral Makarov, the university, isn’t clear, but the two are no longer comrades. This is not the only ghostly doubling. The frigate became flagship after the cruiser Moskva was sunk by Ukrainian missiles early in the invasion. The Moskva was built in Mykolaiv, and rebuilt there in the 1990s, when Russia paid Ukraine to do the work. Now the Moskva is at the bottom of the sea, but on a wharf in Mykolaiv’s derelict shipyards a rusting replica of it is still afloat: its sister vessel, the Ukraina, launched on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse and still waiting to be fitted out.

I couldn’t get back to sleep that first night so I sat up and worked. There’s electricity, internet and mobile phone access in Mykolaiv, and there’s gas. The shops take contactless payments. After shelling took out a pumping station, the city had to revert to brackish water from the mouth of the Southern Buh river, OK for washing and flushing but not fit to drink. Drinking water is handed out free, though you have to queue for it. The streets are swept and rubbish is collected. Petrol is plentiful but expensive, and food abundant for those who can afford it. There are supermarkets in Mykolaiv whose shelves, groaning with fresh produce and packaged goods from all over the world, wouldn’t look out of place in Paris.

After curfew, when the sun was up, I walked to the centre of town, through wide streets lined with enormous old trees, weathered old houses – some built with the local stone, rakushnyak, a kind of limestone with a high proportion of fossilised crayfish shells – and grungy flowerbeds, evidently loved but lightly gardened, lurid with petunias, hollyhocks and orange lilies. There was little traffic and few people were about. Many have left the city, and many businesses are shut, though you can still find open shops and cafés. In the shade of Chestnut Park I came across a young man in a black T-shirt with a pistol on his belt, sitting on a bench and drinking latte from a takeaway cup.

He was a policeman from Kherson, he said. His unit had been ordered to leave before the Russians took over. Now he was waiting with his comrades for Kherson to be liberated so they could go back to their stations. They were confident of victory. It was a sign of how badly the Kremlin had judged the mood of Ukrainians: the success of the invasion was contingent on young men like this, local police in historically Russian-speaking areas, historically sceptical about the Ukrainian project, switching their loyalty to Putin. I asked him if he was worried that in liberating Kherson from the Russians, Ukraine would end up subjecting his city to the kind of bombardment suffered by the Ukrainian cities Russia seized in the east. ‘Our people try to work in a more surgical way,’ he said.

Central Mykolaiv seemed a peaceful, sleepy summer place, half-forest under the shade of those great trees. People strolled at an easy, Mediterranean pace. There were still children around. When the air-raid sirens whined through the birdsong, as they often did, nobody paid much attention, at least in daytime. This was unwise. One of the tallest trees in Mykolaiv is a vast oak, not much younger than the city itself – two centuries – and reaching to the top of the nine-storey regional administration building. In March, a Russian missile punched a seven-storey hole through the building, killing 37 and wounding 34. Visiting journalists are taken to marvel at the hole, a memorial to something that doesn’t need to be remembered because it is still happening.

That missile struck in daylight. Different areas of Ukraine have different degrees of justification for dropping their guard. On my way to the Black Sea I spent the afternoon in Kyiv. After downloading the national air-raid warning app I sat in a café. My phone went off at full volume a few seconds before the actual sirens did. I took my cue from the locals: rather than running for shelter, I turned the sound down, embarrassed. Kyivans continued to whizz past on electric scooters. At the far end of the café terrace, a photographer and a model carried on their fashion shoot. Kyiv hadn’t been attacked for weeks, but a fortnight later, it was. My train from Poland to Kyiv had passed through an Arcadian landscape of downs, meadows, ponds and spinneys. We stopped at Vinnytsia. Twenty minutes later, I was in the buffet when somebody looked up wide-eyed from their phone. Just after the train left Vinnytsia, Russia had dropped three missiles on the city, killing 25 people, including three children, and injuring more than two hundred. Vinnytsia, like Kyiv, is seldom struck. But people in Mykolaiv know that in any 24-hour period missiles are almost certain to fall.

By the end of July, 121 civilians in the city had been killed by Russian missiles, and 558 injured. The mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, reckons that about half of Mykolaiv’s pre-invasion population of half a million have fled. You could rationalise the risk according to the odds, you could fold the idea that you might be killed while you sleep into the general hazard of life, or you could sleep in a shelter every night, though few do. The missiles used by the Russians are either rockets that describe a parabola – Pynchon’s gravity’s rainbow – or cruise missiles. In both cases they fly too fast to be heard before they hit. They’re fired from the backs of trucks, from ships, from submarines and from bombers, sometimes from thousands of miles away. The Ukrainians try to shoot them down, and sometimes succeed, but their technology is old, and they don’t have many anti-missile missiles, and the handful of systems promised by Germany and the US have yet to arrive.

Deaths during air strikes are becoming ‘part of everyday life’, according to Anatoly Onufriychuyk, editor of the Mykolaiv news site Novosti-N. ‘If it happened in peacetime, people would be talking about it for months. “What a tragedy!” It would be analysed from every side, discussed. And now it’s news for a day, and then everyone forgets about it. Everyone has got used to it. Everyone has got used to people dying, that they’re killing peaceful citizens for completely incomprehensible reasons.’

Firing missiles with non-nuclear warheads at a large city is a fantastically ineffective and expensive way of killing everyone in it, or of levelling it to the ground. It’s not the tactic of an army set on presenting itself as a liberator. It is, however, quite a good way of terrorising and demoralising people. And if a country with a large arsenal of such missiles set itself the task of slowly crushing a city, factory by factory, shopping centre by shopping centre, university by university, it could do that, eventually.

I heard the booms again on my second night in Mykolaiv. This time I got back to sleep. In the morning I went to see the damage. Two factories had been struck. Nobody was hurt, but the factories were wrecked. One of them, Transammyak, made ammonia. The other, NikoTex, recycled old fabrics to make industrial felt. It was a new Ukrainian factory, rather than one built on the legacy of the Soviet years. The owner had just put in Italian and German machinery. Workers in blue boiler suits and orange safety helmets were standing in groups, staring at the fresh ruin. On one side of the main workshop, walls of shining corrugated steel lay peeled and buckled. The roof had been reduced to a skeleton and the production line was a mess of charred scrap. A woman swept lumps of felt into the shovel of a digger. The owner’s son, who ran the factory, had the same look of shock and nausea that I’d seen on the face of the university director. I talked to Natalya Konstantinova, the factory’s chief electrician, who was standing at the edge of a deep crater next to the smashed-up workshop. She’d worked there for fifteen years. ‘We worked absolutely on the level,’ she said. ‘Our director held to that principle – everything clear and in the open. We paid our taxes, salaries were always scrupulously accounted for, and we contributed our share to the budget of the country as a whole. And now fifty people are out of work.’

Why did she think Russia had targeted NikoTex? ‘Either they assumed, or they got some tip-off claiming that we were storing something,’ she said. By ‘something’, she meant military material. ‘Or it was simply a deliberate attempt to destroy the productive infrastructure of our country. Because they’re purposely attacking all industry. Transammyak, it’s the same thing, a business that didn’t have any military purpose. We saw: they had no military equipment, no munitions. The most infuriating thing is that this was always a Russian-speaking city. We’re from Ukraine, and we all speak Russian, and nobody had a problem with that. It wasn’t that anyone was pro-Russian or anti-Russian. We didn’t pose a risk to anyone.’

Konstantinova pointed out that there was no space to store military equipment in the factory. Aware of the risk of being targeted if Russian intelligence or locals – either motivated by sympathy with Russian aims, or by money – thought there was a connection between the army and the factory, the director made sure nothing military ever came near it.

It’s impossible to know how much of the Russian missile campaign against Mykolaiv is to do with terror, how much with maiming the Ukrainian economy, how much with an out-of-date checklist of targets, and how much the non-military death and destruction is, to use the American phrase, collateral damage from Russia’s efforts to hunt down Ukraine’s military. Given the unprovoked nature of Russia’s invasion, killing Ukrainian soldiers (or exposing its own troops to death) is not much less of a crime than killing civilians or ruining buildings, but there’s no doubt that killing soldiers and vaporising their equipment is a large part of the purpose behind Russia’s bombardment.

The Ukrainian military presence in Mykolaiv is discreet. I saw no movements of heavy equipment through the streets. Hostility to Russia is high, as is support for the Ukrainian armed forces and belief in their abilities. It’s hard to imagine these feelings have ever run higher. But they’re not universal. The nature of Russia’s initial assault can only be explained by an assumption that most Ukrainians regarded their own leaders, and the concept of Ukraine as a real, independent country, with the same contempt as the Kremlin. Faced with the collapse of this assumption when put to the test of invasion, and dismayed by the non-appearance of the expected army of collaborators, the Russian government fell back on a different framing, that the scale of death and destruction was Ukraine’s fault for resisting. It’s a version of the robber or the rapist’s threat: ‘I’ll get what I want whether you struggle or not, but if you struggle, I might have to kill you too.’ I met one man in Mykolaiv who had had a family member in the Soviet KGB, which, he felt, gave him an insight into Putin’s character. ‘I do ask myself why my friends, people who are so dear and close to me, are fighting and dying, when Putin will get what he wants in the end,’ he said. ‘He’ll find a way.’

The robber/rapist comparison breaks down for the minority of Ukrainians who want to keep an instrumental distance between themselves and the troops fighting in their name. One woman took me to see her daughter’s school, smashed by Russian missiles. Through the broken concrete you could see a shelf of library books exposed to the sun and rain. Instead of blaming Russia for firing missiles at the school, she blamed Ukraine for quartering soldiers there. (Schools in Mykolaiv haven’t been open since before the invasion – pandemic remote learning simply rolled over into conflict remote learning.)

When I asked her about Putin’s aims, she said: ‘I don’t know. He must have his reasons for what he’s doing.’ Did she think what he was doing was right? ‘I never get involved in politics.’ She mentioned that salaries in Russian-annexed Crimea were higher than in Ukraine. She’d been angry, earlier on in the fighting, when Russian troops were approaching Mykolaiv, about how close Ukrainian armoured vehicles were to her house. She was Russian-born. She was unhappy that Russian language teaching was disappearing from Ukraine. She said people were punished for using Russian. (This is untrue: Russian is still the dominant everyday language in Mykolaiv, and still very widely used in Kyiv, though it has been gradually restricted in schools since 2014.) When she said she’d been surprised to learn what a strong army Ukraine had, I thought she was displaying an unexpected Ukrainian patriotism. But thinking back on it, I realise she was expressing disappointment that the Ukrainian army hadn’t melted away, as Putin expected. She did say she’d been perfectly happy in independent Ukraine before the invasion, but her position now was clear: she would rather Putin won, and took what he wanted quickly.

It’s important to know that some Ukrainians think this way. They may be a small and quiet minority for now, and will, I suspect, continue to be a minority. But they exist. And the longer the war drags on, particularly into winter, when problems with heating, water and money become acute, the louder and more numerous they will become, and the angrier and more bitter towards them the loyal majority will be.

Another well-informed man told me what most locals would not say, that after a devastating strike on a Mykolaiv barracks in March, which killed scores and perhaps hundreds of marines, the authorities adopted a policy of dispersal, with small groups of Ukrainian personnel spending the night in a wide array of buildings, including schools. He was a staunch patriot and I was interested in his views about Ukraine’s chances of forcing the Russians out of Kherson. He said it wasn’t important. ‘In the big picture it doesn’t make any difference whether Ukraine takes Kherson or not. The Russian empire is doomed to fall apart. It’s destined to break up into a number of lesser countries. Maybe fewer, maybe more, but it won’t withstand this test.’ I heard this quite often in Mykolaiv: a genuine conviction that Ukraine was bound to win, Russia bound to lose, accompanied by a vagueness about how victory would be gained. It seemed to me that he was wrong. It does make a difference who holds Kherson.

Watch James Meek's short film from Mykolaiv.

One day​ I took a car west out of Mykolaiv, across the Varvarivsky bridge over the Southern Buh, and down the west bank of the river to the little town of Parutyne. We passed vineyards, sunflower fields, beaches. There was barely any traffic. At one point I saw the black and white striped feathers of a hoopoe flying alongside us, keeping pace with the car. Near Parutyne are the ruins of the ancient Greek town of Olbia. The archaeological site is closed, and initially the warden didn’t want to let me in, but after a while he relented. He led me over hillocks, through dry yellow grass and wiry herbs, to a crest overlooking the little stone squares among windblown trees that are the remnants of the Greek grain entrepôt. This was where Herodotus encountered the Scythians, who roamed what is now southern Ukraine and provoked his thoughts on the meaning of ‘civilised’ and ‘barbaric’.

Beyond Olbia were the choppy greenish waters of the mouth of the Buh, and, on the horizon, the gulf of the Dnieper. It was as close as I could get to the Dnieper. From the gulf to about 120 miles upstream, both banks are held by Russian troops. The front line lies between the Dnieper and the Buh. I could hear the shelling a few miles away on the other side of the estuary. I saw a sprinkle of lights appear between a pair of wind turbines, followed by a series of puffs of smoke, followed by explosions: a salvo of artillery rockets.

As much as the strength of armies matters, big wars turn on natural barriers: mountains and the passes between them, rivers and the bridges over them. There are no mountains on the former steppe of southern Ukraine, now flat farmland. But there are rivers, and one river in particular. The Dnieper, which splits Ukraine in two, runs from near Chernobyl at the Belarus border past Kyiv and a series of large industrial cities down to the Black Sea at Kherson. It’s vast. For much of its length, it’s miles wide. It’s better thought of as a series of reservoirs than a river. Half a dozen dams supplement Ukraine’s electricity supply: thanks to its whirring hydroelectric and nuclear power stations, along with the loss of its energy-hungry metallurgical plants in the east, invaded Ukraine has so much electricity to spare it’s started exporting it to the EU.

As both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army found during the Second World War, the Dnieper is a hard river to cross under fire, and there are few bridges. In most of Ukraine, Russian forces are a long way from the river, but even if the Ukrainian army continues to be pushed back in the east, the Dnieper should provide a secure line of defence for the west of the country, often known, thanks to the way the river flows, as ‘right-bank Ukraine’, which contains the greater part of Kyiv, as well as Odesa and Lviv. If the eastern front collapses and the war becomes about the defence of right-bank Ukraine, certain ideas which seemed fanciful and dangerous at the beginning of the invasion – a Western-enforced no-fly zone, foreign peacekeeping troops – become more practical. The problem is that while most of left-bank Ukraine is still in Ukrainian hands, in the south, the Russians crossed the Dnieper early in the conflict, and stayed.

How the Russian army managed to reach the Dnieper so fast and cross it so easily is the subject of much bitter speculation among Ukrainians. Early in the invasion President Zelensky sacked the head of the Kherson branch of the Ukrainian domestic intelligence agency, the SBU, calling him a traitor. The Kherson cop I met in Mykolaiv passed on a rumour that a week before the invasion this same officer, Serhiy Kryvoruchko, had ordered the removal of explosives placed to blow up the Antonovsky bridge, the only passage across the Dnieper at Kherson. It seems highly unlikely an SBU chief would have that power. Another story I heard was that the Kherson defenders did try to blow the bridge, but the explosives didn’t work. The most plausible explanation for the fall of Kherson is that the Ukrainians didn’t have the forces to cover every possible route of attack, the defenders of the city were badly prepared and a number of key leaders fled prematurely.

In those early days, it seemed Ukraine would quickly lose its entire coastline. On 24 February, the first day of the war, Russian troops, pouring northwards out of Crimea, seized the left-bank city of Nova Kakhovka and crossed the Dnieper by the bridge over a power station barrage. By the next day they were in control of the Antonovsky bridge; by 2 March, they had taken Kherson city itself, and were fanning out west, towards Mykolaiv and Odesa.

Mykolaiv could have fallen with the same ease as Kherson, such was the shock at the Russian assault. One businessman I spoke to, Yuri, had mocked his son when he called from Kyiv on the eve of the invasion to warn him. When he called again the next morning to tell him the shooting had started, Yuri asked him what he’d been smoking. His son told him to look at the internet.

Some of the first shots of the war were against Mykolaiv. Early on the morning of the 24th, the Russians fired missiles against the Ukrainian military airfield at Kulbakino, to the south-east of the city. ‘When I heard the first blast I lay there for five minutes, thinking, well, the port’s not far away, maybe there was an accident, something fell, something exploded,’ Novosti-N’s editor said. ‘When I heard the second explosion, I got up, went to the car park, got in the car, and went to film Russian rockets … the Russian Kalibr cruise missiles were coming in and our fighters were taking off towards them. I saw one plane take off right into the bombardment. I stopped filming after a while and just watched him gaining height, and it was as if at some point he lost the thread – what now? Should I try and shoot those missiles down, which in theory his plane was capable of doing, or should I try to light out for Romania? It was like for several seconds his plane just hung there and he didn’t know what to do. And then he flew away.’

Many people in Mykolaiv believe that within 48 hours, Russian tanks were in the heart of the city, and that Russian troops carried out a helicopter-borne assault near the shipyards. My understanding is that, in a sign of the degree of chaos at the time, both were horrific episodes of friendly fire. The tanks were Ukrainian tracked artillery that had retreated from Kherson; the helicopters were Ukrainian helicopters trying to find a safe place to land. Scores of Ukrainian personnel were killed and wounded by their own side, who thought they were under attack.

The defence of Mykolaiv was entrusted to a Ukrainian general with a high public profile, a paratrooper veteran of Donbas, Dmitry ‘Marcello’ Marchenko. In a YouTube interview with a local reporter two months later, he described the complete breakdown of co-ordination between the city authorities, the security agencies and the military he saw when he arrived on 25 February: ‘In one street I saw a resident taking down the flag and crumpling it up and I said: “What are you doing?” He said: “It’s over. Kherson’s surrendered, we’re next. Everyone understands, they’re many, we’re few. We need to prepare.” I said: “Hang on, this is Mykolaiv, we’ll put up a fight.” He said: “Everyone can see how many troops they have.” I said: “It’s fine.” When I got the heads of all the services together I could see that, unfortunately, there was no overall command. I asked the head of one brigade what his task was and he said it was to defend his unit’s base. I said: “Hang on, what about the city, who’s going to defend that?”’

Communications were so poor that the defenders relied on mobiles. Early on, Marchenko himself was shot at several times by Ukrainians who took him for a Russian officer. He split the city into zones, set his forces to dig trenches, and took a hard line with senior officials who tried to run away, telling one he was likely to be shot for treason. The region’s governor, Vitaly Kim, projected a message of calm and resilience.

Thousands of Russian troops arrived in early March, hoping to surround and neutralise Mykolaiv to pave the way for an assault on Odesa. At one point, with the city almost completely encircled, Marchenko defied an order from Kyiv to blow up the Varvarivsky bridge, Mykolaiv’s last connection to the outside world. A group of policemen armed with anti-tank missiles drove Russian troops from Kulbakino. Ukrainian artillery began to thin out the invaders. Far beyond their supply lines, heavy on high-tech equipment but light on basic infantry, the Russians were diluted in the wide green Ukrainian flatlands. Defeated around Mykolaiv, and further north at Voznesensk, they retreated to the positions they’ve pretty much held ever since, roughly on the administrative border between Mykolaiv and Kherson regions, halfway between the two cities, which in normal times are only an hour and a half’s drive apart. They have set the concrete plant in Kherson to work making fortifications for the string of villages that mark the 150-mile perimeter of their western foothold, and are hunkered down, waiting for the Ukrainians to mount their long-promised effort to drive them back across the Dnieper.

This front could become part of a new border between Russia and Ukraine, a temporary ceasefire line that becomes permanent, like the border between the two Koreas. I asked Leonid Klimenko, the head of another of Mykolaiv’s universities, the Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, what he thought of this idea. He gave it short shrift, partly because he assumed, on the basis of past experience, that Russia would carry on shooting, even if it stopped trying to advance. ‘The ceasefire line would only be about 20 km from Mykolaiv. It would be a second Mariupol. They would be continually shelling the city. The city couldn’t develop, nothing would get built. It would be a catastrophe. Nobody would want to study here; what parent would allow their children to study on a campus that might get hit by an artillery shell? For us the minimum is to free Kherson city, to liberate right-bank Ukraine, and to let the Dnieper protect us from Russia.’

Klimenko’s university is still open. A pile of MA dissertations lay on his desk. Some MA students, who in the Ukrainian system mount a PhD-style defence of their work, had their vivas on 25 February, when the city’s military defenders were still in disarray. On the way to his office I passed workmen fixing ornate new ceramic tiles in the lobby. It seemed a bold step, given that two of his peers had just seen their institutions given the Russian missile treatment. But in light of what Klimenko said, it was an attempt to cope by carrying on as normal; collateral defiance, like the woman I met on the train to Kyiv, worried she was going to miss her manicure appointment, whose family had been shot at and almost blown to bits in a minefield when they fled Kherson.

Klimenko’s hopes of victory were tempered by the realism of a man Putin’s age who had spent the first four decades of his life living and working in the Moscow-dominated system. ‘Kherson fell in a day, but I don’t know how long it’ll take to win it back, or whether we’ll manage to do it,’ he said. ‘Are we counting on Russia being populated exclusively by idiots who don’t know how to fight a war? I wouldn’t bet on it. I’m old, and I remember how all our best people were posted to Moscow, and intelligent, qualified people were concentrated there over a period of many years. They’re not all fools.’

On the eve​ of the Russian invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky’s stock, once so high, had fallen. Few Ukrainians had a good word to say about him. I was in Kyiv the week leading up to 24 February and everyone I spoke to was of the same view. It wasn’t that they hated him; they were just disappointed, unimpressed. Staying and leading the country’s defence has brought him respect, authority and unprecedented power. His pre-invasion unpopularity, in retrospect, seems harsh. Impoverished Ukraine had a bad pandemic, Zelensky struggled to reduce corruption, rents and utility bills steepened, no good way could be found out of Russia’s grip on eastern Donbas. But all the same, Ukraine was developing in a way it hadn’t since independence. Much has been made of the extraordinary success of its military, less of the resilience of Ukrainian society and institutions: the railways, the electricity grid, the financial system, telecoms, education, pensions, retail. Much of that resilience is due to individual sacrifice and initiative, and to volunteers; corruption and incompetence, of course, persist. But there isn’t a sense that the government is absent or falling apart. This can’t be just luck. It was striking that this time, as soon as I started talking about politics, where previously people would have grumbled about Zelensky, now they complained vehemently about his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. I asked everyone I met to try to remember the mood in the year before the invasion. People remembered Zelensky’s unpopularity, the rapidly increasing bills for basic services, Covid. They also remembered a sense that, eight years after the Maidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s damaging but limited incursion into Donbas, the economy was beginning to stabilise.

Many cities in the communist world were economically devastated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but few fell so far, so fast, as Mykolaiv. In its heyday as a centre of shipbuilding for the Soviet navy, it was closed to outsiders. Every morning, thirty thousand workers went to the yard on foot and by tram. Those who weren’t building warships were making parts for warships, or working in one of the nuclear weapons bases outside the city. Two gigantic eggshell blue cranes that still loom over the city were bought by the USSR from Finland to build aircraft carriers. The Soviet Union fell apart just as four reactors were due to be installed on its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The reactors were taken away, the aircraft carrier was cut up for scrap, and the shipbuilders lost their jobs, their status, their framing of the world.

As that industry vanished, another was trying not to. ‘You can imagine how hard it was for us to maintain the agriculture system here after the fall of the Soviet Union,’ said Oleh Pilipenko, head of one of the communities of Ukrainian villages known as a ‘hromada’. ‘In the 1990s farmers were standing watch over their equipment at night with weapons in their hands to make sure it wasn’t stolen. And now, in the most barbaric way, it’s all been destroyed.’

To the extent that an alternative to warships has been found for Mykolaiv, it’s agriculture: Ukraine’s former Pontic steppe as the world’s kitchen garden, with Mykolaiv, Kherson and Odesa as food ports. A Ukrainian-Canadian farm manager told me that Kherson’s large irrigated areas, now under Russian occupation, were more productive for fruit and vegetables than the Netherlands. The politics of Ukrainian land reform are highly polarised, emotional and complex, involving vast oligarchic land portfolios, overseas investors, property theft, exploitation, memories of Stalin-era famine and rural poverty as well as highly successful smaller private farmers and family smallholders doing quite nicely. The invasion happened in the middle of a controversial change allowing Ukrainians to buy and sell farmland for the first time. But a new agricultural economy was coming into being. A Ukrainian offensive to liberate Kherson will not only be an attempt to cross empty space between cities but a battle for the land itself, which many Ukrainians hope will bring future prosperity. It was clear by the start of May, when Russia introduced the rouble in occupied Kherson and began to purge Ukrainian teaching in its schools, that Putin wanted to take that land for Russia.

I drove to a village called Peresadivka, north of Mykolaiv, on a new concrete highway smoother than many British roads. It could have been Euro-anywhere. The driver hadn’t read the memo that Ukrainians were supposed to like Zelensky now. He’d been bad-mouthing him as corrupt like the others. Suddenly, when we hit the new road, he began to gush. ‘This is the road to Kirovohrad,’ he said. ‘It’s a hundred kilometres. It used to take seven and a half hours. It’s all Zelensky’s work. When we had Poroshenko as president he only managed a few kilometres. As soon as Zelensky came to power, they finished it in a year.’

We turned off towards the village. The road got a little rougher and we drove past wild apricot trees bright with fruit. Dozens of storks edited frogs out of the wheat stubble. In the village guys with bucket hats and shorts parked their bikes outside the store. Tanned boys and girls dived off an unfinished concrete bridge into the river Ingul. Grapevines shaded the walled yards of cottages painted pink and brown and blue.

I wouldn’t have seen the signs that the Russians had been through the village – and come under Ukrainian fire – if Tatiana, an official from the Peresadivka hromada, hadn’t given me a tour. The old pontoon bridge blown up. The shot-up door of the shop where the Russians stole some groceries. A smashed-up grain store. Roofs with holes in them. On a rise above the town, in March, the Russians set up their armoured vehicles in a sunflower field. A villager was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They found his body later. He had been shot, with signs of torture. Nobody was sure how he had ended up there. He left a wife and children. The Russians, who had a database showing the names and addresses of people connected to the Ukrainian military, went to the house of a man who worked in a military recruitment office, but he wasn’t there. They talked to his family and left. Under fire from Ukrainian forces, the Russians retreated. The front line is fifteen miles away now, but Tatiana said they sometimes hear it. ‘You often see a pillar of white smoke on the horizon,’ she said. ‘They say that’s a field burning. If it’s black smoke, it means a shell landed somewhere.’

The front line runs through the hromadas, dividing villages across the great flat square fields. In the hromada of Pervomaiske, east of Mykolaiv, two of the eleven villages are under occupation, though they are both now empty of civilians. Maxim Korovai, a local councillor, told me the last four pensioners had just been evacuated. He was visiting a charity depot in Mykolaiv to pick up supplies. The hromadas, which were set up a few years ago as a smaller, more accountable and corruption-proof layer of local government, have become a framework for delivering aid and keeping in touch for people who won’t or can’t leave, about 1500 out of an original population of ten thousand. Twice a week Korovai and his team deliver 1200 loaves of bread around the area.

The Russians briefly occupied Pervomaiske’s largest village in mid-March. The shelling has been ceaseless ever since. Russian jets dropped bombs on a British-owned sugar factory, putting five hundred people out of work. There is no running water, gas, power, sewage or internet; mobile phone signals flicker in and out. Across the hromada, 48 civilians have been killed by shells, rockets or mortars, and three-quarters of homes have been damaged. Next to the school in Pervomaiske is a crater six metres deep. ‘Every day, at about the same time and place, they shell us – the people who still live there don’t understand why the shells fall where they do,’ Korovai said. ‘Not for some obvious reason, a weapons store, or a concentration of troops, but in civilian areas. Houses, gardens, schools, hospitals, farms, businesses.’

Sasha, a regular Ukrainian army soldier, came into Mykolaiv for a break and to get his car fixed. It’s an ancient jalopy with bits missing, like a stock car, but it goes. His brigade is based right at the front, in Posad-Pokrovske, the last Ukrainian-held village on the M14 highway to Kherson, directly facing the Russian troops. The village has been heavily shelled. One civilian described it to me as ‘like Stalingrad’. Sasha, a biker from Odesa, was tired, defiant and knowing, full of terse and slightly self-conscious veteran’s talk, though he only joined up on the day after the invasion. He took part in the operation to clear the Russians from Posad-Pokrovske in March and has been there ever since. ‘Stupid people dig shallow trenches’ is one of his aphorisms. ‘The deeper you dig, the longer you live.’

When Sasha’s company got to Posad-Pokrovske, they spent the first night in a school. The next day it was flattened in an air strike. They spent the next three and a half months living in concrete pipes under a bridge. ‘I’m already used to it,’ he said. ‘A typical day is they shell and bomb us from morning to night. Mum says, “Where are you?” and I say: “I’m home.” It’s our home now. People say, “We’re looking forward to you coming home,” and we say: “We are home.”’

Bodies of dead civilians have been lying unburied in Posad-Pokrovske for months. The soldiers aren’t allowed to collect them; since they’re civilians, it has to be done by the police, and the police don’t come. A few days before I met him, Sasha and his comrades had buried one of their own. ‘He was driving a car at the front and he ran into fire. He was carrying fuel in the boot. There was just half a person left when they got him out. He was a professional soldier, he only had two months left on his contract. There seems to be a rule: whenever you’re down to your last month or two – 200, 200, 200.’ ‘Cargo 200’ is the old Soviet military code for a shipment of dead bodies. Both sides use the expression. It’s become a verb – ‘I don’t want to get two hundreded.’ It almost happened to Sasha. A car he was in was hit by a shell and he had shrapnel wounds to his head and neck. As he tells it, he ran away from hospital back to the front.

At night, Sasha can see the lights of Kherson, about fifteen miles away. Despite frequent pronouncements by Ukrainian officials and social media war geeks that the offensive is about to start, or has already started, there has been little change to the front line in recent months. A handful of villages have been liberated in the north of the Russian bridgehead, and Ukraine has won a toehold on the hostile side of a smaller river, the Ingulets. But mainly the two sides remain a few miles apart, with more lines of artillery further back. In the flat, open landscape, with little cover except the trees along the roads, any attempt by one side to breach the other’s lines is subject to withering fire from anti-tank missiles and guns, or shelling. Both sides launch drones to spy out artillery targets; when the artillery fires, it becomes the target for the other side’s artillery.

Russia​ has an overwhelming advantage in all these areas. It has more artillery guns and rockets than Ukraine, by a large margin. It has more attack planes and helicopters. It has more anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Ukrainian drones, and a crushing advantage in electronic warfare systems to jam them. ‘It’s easier for them,’ Sasha said. ‘They haul in shells by rail, by the wagonload. They unload them with cranes. They dig shelters with bulldozers. They shoot rockets from morning till night as if they came out of a machine. It’s shameful to admit – they have drones flying over us 24/7 and we have one. Sometimes we can see what they’re up to … but it’s embarrassing. We don’t have the capability.’

Ukraine has been good at hiding its military, but even so, the absence in Mykolaiv and the surrounding countryside of the signs of a build-up of equipment, troops and supplies that you might expect for a counter-offensive is striking. There’s only so much you can move by night. If Ukraine is using its much vaunted mobilisation to expand its army with new units to retake Kherson, it’s being done with extraordinary stealth – or it’s simply taking a long time to integrate a chaotic array of foreign weapons and untrained recruits. Sasha was coy about his unit’s losses, but he did say they hadn’t been replaced.

None of this means Ukraine can’t retake Kherson by the end of the year. Ukraine has been using a newly acquired American-made weapon, a precise, long-range rocket fired from two types of mobile launcher known as HIMARS and MLRS, to destroy Russian ammunition dumps and command centres, reducing its artillery advantage and killing experienced officers. Russian forces in right-bank Kherson have taken grievous losses, and are fighting far from home, without leave, as part of an oppressive occupying force they were never psychologically prepared to be. Militarily, their position is precarious. They’re dependent for supplies and reinforcements on just three bridges over the Dnieper – the Antonovsky road bridge and the railway bridge in Kherson, and the bridge over the hydroelectric barrage upstream at Nova Kakhovka. All three have now been bombarded by Ukrainian rockets (it has been suggested that Ukraine is also using steerable artillery shells) and the Antonovsky bridge has been rendered unusable, possibly the rail bridge too. Russian forces on the wrong side of the Dnieper face the terrifying prospect of not only having their supply lines cut off, but their retreat.

The question remains whether Ukraine will be able to take advantage of the opportunity it has opened up. Jack Watling, a British defence analyst with good access to the Ukrainian military at high level, argues that they have ‘massively expanded their force’. The key shortage, prosaically enough, is middle management. ‘They don’t have very many … kind of middle level commanders, battalion and brigade staffs who know how to integrate machine guns, snipers, mortars, armour artillery, into the same battle space … But if they want to conduct a major attack, they need to make sure that they’ve got enough people who are trained and prepared and have a clear plan down at the tactical level. If they don’t do that, there is a risk that they will take very heavy casualties. The main challenge at this point is ensuring that it’s not done prematurely.’

Oleh Pilipenko​ , the head of Shevchenkove hromada, said the Ukrainian army’s feat in pushing back the Russians was already an extraordinary victory. ‘I don’t like those fakers out there on the internet, saying: “Our people are already fighting in Kherson city!” They give Ukrainians the impression that the counter-attack is going to begin tomorrow. The turning point in the war was getting HIMARS, giving us the ability to destroy munitions dumps behind the lines. Now the Russians are panicking. It’s much easier for our troops now. But as far as an actual counter-offensive is concerned – let’s be clear, their positions are so well fortified, any counter-offensive would have to break through the Russian front line to the rear, bypassing Russian strongpoints. The army’s ready to do this, but it needs better supplies and equipment, because right now they are far, far stronger than us in terms of the number of weapons they have.’

Pilipenko is a trained military artillery spotter as well as a local politician. Shevchenkove is only four miles from the front line at Posad-Pokrovske. Eight of the hromada’s villages are under Russian occupation. And Pilipenko had an opportunity to observe the Russian military up close when they kidnapped him in March. He and his driver were arrested while delivering food aid across the lines – the front is a little porous, even now. Pilipenko had made sure he had no documents showing he was a government official, but the Russians identified him from their database. They gave him and the driver a kicking and took them to their base at Chornobaivka outside Kherson in an armoured troop carrier. The elderly driver was allowed to sit inside; Pilipenko was lashed to the top of the vehicle with rope and carried without boots in temperatures of -10ºC. He got frostbite. At Chornobaivka, under heavy bombardment from Ukrainian artillery, Pilipenko was tortured with electric shocks and rubber truncheons in the hope he knew something about the defence of Mykolaiv – he didn’t. Eventually the Russians were forced to withdraw from Chornobaivka and move their base to Nova Kakhovka, on the other side of the Dnieper. Pilipenko was taken with them, his conditions improved, and in June he was returned to Shevchenkove as part of a prisoner exchange.

While he was in Nova Kakhovka, Pilipenko said, he was able to talk to some of the Russians about their situation. Morale fell in May when the expected troop rotation didn’t happen. The original plan, he learned, had been to take the whole of Ukraine in one week. ‘Kyiv would fall in three days, the government would either be evacuated or captured, and if the government was evacuated, the entire Ukrainian armed forces would surrender. They understood that our most effective troops were in Donbas, so they didn’t confront them head-on at first, they wanted to surround them and force them to lay down their arms, as with Mariupol. But when months passed without effect … they understood they’d fallen victim to their own propaganda.’

I hadn’t mentioned to Pilipenko my visit to Herodotus’ hangout in Olbia. But when I listened to the recording of our conversation, I noticed he used the concepts of ‘barbarity’ and ‘civilisation’ as part of the frame of reference for his experiences. The Russians, as a whole, were barbarous; but he drew a distinction between a ‘barbarous, aggressive’ paratroop unit from Asian Russia and a more ‘civilised’ unit from European Russia, who treated him with more decency. A danger of a drawn-out war is that ordinary Ukrainians increasingly other and dehumanise the Russians, in response to the daily toll of atrocities – while I was writing this, video footage emerged apparently showing a Russian soldier castrating a Ukrainian prisoner – and the Russian state’s relentless, hysterical dehumanisation of the Ukrainians. ‘I like this kind of figurative comparison of the fascistisation of Ukraine with a cancerous tumour,’ the pundit Vasily Fatigarov said on Russian TV. ‘We are now working like surgeons. And when a surgeon cuts out a cancerous tumour, while he’s cutting it, it’s growing. And when he cleans it up, he also has to clean up a certain amount of healthy tissue, so that, God forbid, nothing remains and starts growing again … Therefore we will purify that territory very precisely, very severely, and ensure that that fascist infection doesn’t grow anywhere else.’ One day in Mykolaiv a woman whose husband is in the Ukrainian special forces wanted to show me something on her phone. It was a video clip of dead Russian soldiers. ‘My husband killed some orcs in the east,’ she said proudly.

Pilipenko took me to Shevchenkove in a police car with the local postmistress, who was making her first trip back since March. The village is shelled every day. While I was there, the rounds weren’t landing all that close – a few miles away, perhaps. There were different flavours of thunder in three directions, and smoke most ways you looked. The village stands halfway between dereliction and life. Most of its buildings are damaged. As in Pervomaiske, there’s no running water, electricity or gas. Pilipenko showed me the shrapnel holes in one of the gas pipes. The rusting pipe, above the surface in classic Soviet fashion, didn’t look as if it had been in great shape to begin with. The hromada had had a mountain of work even before it was invaded. In the early days of the invasion, in winter, Pilipenko said, local hunters shot foxes that had grown fat feeding on the bodies of Russians killed when their armoured columns were hit by Ukrainian shellfire. Many of the houses are still inhabited. Residents depend on aid deliveries. There’s a shop selling baby formula and acting as a makeshift pharmacy. We dropped the postmistress off at her house to pick up some things of her grandmother’s. The pavement outside was speckled black with fallen mulberries, and the walnuts were almost ripe. The postmistress came back out and I asked her how the house was. ‘Not too bad,’ she said, sounding relieved. ‘The ceiling fell in.’

We swung by the volunteer fire brigade, often called out during the harvest to fight fires started by shells exploding in the fields. Sometimes, while they turn their hoses and flails on the flames, the combine harvester carries on. One of the firemen, Alexander, showed me the ‘cassette’ from a Russian Uragan artillery rocket, a heavy steel core to which a set of bomblets is fixed. Just before the rocket lands, the bomblets are scattered over a wide area, to kill as many soldiers – or civilians – as possible. He told me that three days earlier the village had been shelled with Uragans, and three people had been killed.

Two of the victims were killed in a single yard. It was a tiny space, barely two metres square, still covered in a vine trellis, with a chicken enclosure next to it. There wasn’t a mark on the concrete floor. It took me a while to spot the small hole in the roof of a shed the bomblet had made. An old man lost his brother and his friend. ‘Mytka was there, and Vytka was there,’ he said, jabbing his finger at the ground. The brothers’ very old mother stood in the cottage doorway in a flowered housecoat, shaking and weeping, a handkerchief squeezed in one fist. She looked at us as if expecting us to perform some meaningful duty. There was nothing meaningful to say.

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