Proud Band of Ukrainian Troops Holds Russian Assault at Bay — for Now

MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — The remains of a Russian Tigr fighting vehicle sat smoldering on the side of the road, as Ukrainian troops lounged outside their trenches smoking cigarettes. Nearby, a group of local villagers was tinkering with a captured T-90 tank, trying to get it running again so that the Ukrainian Army might put it to use.

For three days, Russian forces had fought to take Mykolaiv, but by Sunday, Ukrainian troops had driven them back from the city limits and retaken the airport, halting the Russian advance along the Black Sea, at least temporarily.

“Few expected such strength from our people because, when you haven’t slept for three days, and when you only have one dry ration because the rest burned up, when it’s negative temperature out and there is nothing to warm you, and when you are constantly in the fight, believe me, it is physically very difficult,” an exhausted Col. Sviatoslav Stetsenko, of the Ukrainian Army’s 59th Brigade, said in an interview. “But our people endured this.”

Taking Mykolaiv remains a key objective for Russian forces, and the thwomp of artillery in the distance on Sunday suggested that the Ukrainians had not pushed them back that far. But the unexpected Ukrainian success of defending this critical port, about 65 miles from Odessa, underscores two emerging trends in the war.

Russia’s failure to seize Mykolaiv and other cities quickly, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia appears to have intended, is largely a function of its military’s faltering performance. Russian forces have suffered from logistical snafus, baffling tactical decisions and low morale.

Residents of Mykolaiv worked Sunday to repair a captured Russian tank. The region’s governor said the Russians had abandoned so much equipment that he did not have enough workers to collect it all.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

But it is the fierce and, according to many analysts, unexpectedly capable defense by Ukrainian forces, who are significantly outgunned, that has largely stalled the Russian advance and, for now, prevented Mykolaiv from falling into Russian hands.

For three days, troops from the Ukrainian Army’s 59th Brigade, together with other military and territorial defense units, have been defending Mykolaiv from Russian attack along several fronts, facing down punishing artillery barrages, helicopter attacks and rocket strikes, some of which have hit civilian neighborhoods.

Civilians elsewhere in Ukraine on Sunday bore the brunt of an unrelenting Russian assault. For the second day in a row, Ukrainians were unable to escape from the besieged southern city of Mariupol amid heavy Russian shelling despite efforts to negotiate a cease-fire. And civilians trying to leave Kyiv, the capital, and the nearby town of Irpin also came under attack by Russian forces. Mortar shells fired at a battered bridge used by people fleeing the fighting killed four people, including a woman and her two children.

Mr. Putin, in a phone call with President Emmanuel Macron of France, denied that Russian forces were targeting civilians and vowed to reach all of his goals “through negotiation or war,” according to the French.

By Sunday, Ukrainian troops had driven Russian forces back from the city limits, for now halting their advance along the Black Sea.  “We fight them day and night; we don’t let them sleep,” one general said.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

That the Ukrainian forces still exist and are able to mount a defense after 11 days of war is by itself a major feat. Most military analysts and even some Ukrainian generals predicted that if Russia mounted a full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s military, which is dwarfed by its counterpart by almost every measure, would not last more than a few days or even hours. But by taking advantage of their local knowledge, attacking lumbering Russian troop columns with small, lithe units and using Western military assistance like antitank grenades to maximum effect, Ukrainian forces have managed to slow, if not stop, the Russian advance.

“We fight them day and night; we don’t let them sleep,” said Maj. Gen. Dmitry Marchenko, the commander of forces defending Mykolaiv. “They get up in the morning disoriented, tired. Their moral psychological state is simply broken.”

The governor of the Mykolaiv region, Vitaliy Kim, said that Russian forces were surrendering in unexpected numbers and had abandoned so much equipment that he did not have enough military and municipal workers to collect it all.

“We’re in a good mood now,” he said.

The time for such attitudes may be limited. A senior Ukrainian military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military assessments, said that Russian forces outside Mykolaiv appeared to be regrouping and preparing for a counterattack, possibly with more firepower. Russia still has many more troops and advanced weapons than Ukraine, and its air force now dominates the skies.

For three days, Ukrainian troops and volunteers in Mykolaiv faced down artillery barrages, helicopter attacks and rocket strikes.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Despite near-frantic warnings from the White House of an imminent Russian invasion in the weeks before it actually happened on Feb. 24, the initial attack took Colonel Stetsenko’s unit by surprise, he said. His brigade was at a training exercise near the border with Crimea outside a town called Oleshky and only half assembled when it received the order to prepare for battle.

“If we had received the order three or four days before, we could have prepared, dug trenches,” he said.

That delay nearly led to his brigade’s destruction in the first hours of the war, he said.

The Russian force that poured out of Crimea was five times the size of his Ukrainian unit and quickly overwhelmed it. His brigade had no air support and few functional antiaircraft systems, because most had been sent to Kyiv to defend the capital. Much of the brigade’s tanks and armored fighting vehicles were destroyed in the initial attack by Russian aviation.

Patrolling a road in Mykolaiv. The city’s defense came at the expense of Kherson, the first Ukrainian city to fall to the Russians. Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The brigade’s commander, Col. Oleksandr Vinogradov, had lost touch with military leadership and was forced to make decisions on the fly, said Colonel Stetsenko, who was with the commander throughout. Encircled and suffering heavy losses from strikes by Russian fighter jets, Colonel Vinogradov ordered his remaining tank and artillery units to punch a hole through a unit of Russian airborne assault troops that had positioned itself at the Ukrainian brigade’s rear.

The maneuver allowed the main Ukrainian fighting force to cross a bridge over the Dnieper River and retreat west about 45 miles to Mykolaiv, where it could regroup and link up with other units to continue the fight.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know

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Evacuation efforts under attack. A Russian force advancing on Kyiv fired mortar shells at a battered bridge used by evacuees fleeing the fighting, leaving four people dead. In Mariupol, a planned evacuation was halted for a second consecutive day by “intense shelling.”

Protests in Russia. Amid antiwar rallies across Russia, the police said more than 3,000 people were arrested Sunday, the highest nationwide total in any single day of protest in recent memory. An activist group that tracks arrests reported detentions in 49 different Russian cities.

Military aid. The Biden administration is studying how to supply Russian-made Polish fighter jets to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky repeated his calls for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over his country, but U.S. lawmakers in both parties said they were largely opposed to that move.

“The fighter jets of the enemy attacked our tanks, several tanks were hit and burned, and the rest remained and did not flee,” Colonel Stetsenko said. “They knew that behind them were other people, and they gave up their lives to break through the bridge to dig in on the other bank.”

The tactic worked, but the costs were steep. By falling back to Mykolaiv, Colonel Stetsenko’s brigade had to sacrifice Kherson, which on March 2 became the first major city to fall to the Russian forces. They had no choice, Colonel Stetsenko said. If they had tried to defend Kherson, Russian forces could have flanked them and cut them off, opening a road to the west, and to Odessa.

With a white, closely trimmed beard and deep crevices around his mouth where dimples might once have been, Colonel Stetsenko cuts an unusual figure on the battlefield. He is 56 and had been retired from the military for a decade when he decided to re-enlist in 2020. By then, Ukrainian forces were already fighting a Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and Colonel Stetsenko felt he needed to do his part.

“I knew that many people who had already served were tired,” he said. “It is difficult to live for so long without their families, and we needed people to serve. So I went to the military recruiting center and signed a contract.”

Craters, like this one, dot Mykolaiv after days of attacks. Ukrainian forces are badly outgunned but many analysts say their fierce and  unexpectedly capable defense has largely stalled the Russian advance.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Such dedication goes some way to explaining the fierce resistance displayed by Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield, as Russian troops seem to be surrendering in large numbers. An acute knowledge of the Russian military gives the Ukrainian forces another advantage.

Colonel Stetsenko served with Russians as a young soldier in the Soviet military in the 1980s, when he was posted to the Far East. Now, soldiers based at some of the same Russian garrisons where he spent his youth are fighting against him.

“They are now my enemy,” he said. “And each one of them who comes here with arms, who comes here as an invader, I will do everything I can to ensure that he remains as fertilizer for our land.”

On Sunday evening, Colonel Stetsenko returned to the front line outside the city where the sounds of battle swelled once more as Russian troops regrouped for a counterattack. That has been the way of this war, nearly a week and a half in, a violent ebb and flow that has centered on a few key cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv.

In Mykolaiv, Colonel Stetsenko and his comrades won the city a day of rest. The sun came out for a few hours in the morning, followed by a light snow in the afternoon. Streets that were deserted a few days ago were populated again with mothers pushing strollers and people walking dogs.

On the outskirts where fighting had been most intense, Nikolai Bilyashchat, 54, had joined a few of his neighbors to work on the Russian T-90 tank, which now sported a Ukrainian flag. It had been damaged when Ukrainian forces blew up the bridge it was driving over, and now only the treads on its left side worked properly.

“I’ve been a driver my whole life, so I know a little bit about mechanics,” Mr. Bilyashchat said. “Though I don’t know a thing about tanks.”

“I know a little bit about mechanics,” said Nikolai Bilyashchat as he and other Mykolaiv residents set to work on the captured Russian tank.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

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