Dispatch from Ukraine: ‘We need more guns, more missiles. We have no choice, we must win’
Updated: Feb 28
Picture: Mill, the founder of Ukraine Rescue Mission, stands amid the remains of destroyed farm buildings on the outskirts of the city of Mykolaiv
While most residents around Mykolaiv have fled, some have ignored an order to evacuate: either they didn’t have the money to go, or they didn’t have the energy. Others just didn’t want to leave
July 23, 2022
Svetlana Albeshenko strapped an assault weapon across her chest in the garage which she and her husband, Ura, have turned into a bunker for themselves and their two daughters.
“At first I thought I was going to flee Ukraine, but not now,” the 33-year-old said. “I am staying because I believe in my country.”
The garage stands down a potholed road on the outskirts of Mykolaiv, 130 kilometres north east of Odesa, and just 20 kilometres from the frontline of the war to the north east. The Russian shelling is almost constant, starting early in the morning.
Later, Svetlana made coffee while Ura lifted up three floorboards to show the bunker below. It is there that the couple and their daughters, Alina, 12, and Kristina, 11, sleep – staying safe from the shelling which has forced them to flee their home in the centre of Mykolaiv.
Picture: Svetlana Albeshenko
“I feel safe here,” Ura said. “We have lived here since the beginning of the war.”
In the bunker, there are two makeshift rooms and four beds, two with teddy bears propped up on them. The walls are padded with foam and cardboard, and the air is stale but cool.
Back up in the garage, Ura proudly toted another assault weapon that the family have ready should the Russian forces advance into Mykolaiv and he and Svetlana are forced to fight. He then opened a toolbox containing at least a dozen magazines of bullets.
Picture: Ura Albeshenko
Svetlana laid the coffee in white mugs on the table and pushed a plate of scones towards me.
As she leaned back against a workbench in the garage, she heard the sound of shelling and just shrugged.
“I’m so used to the sound of the missiles. It is both boring and scary at the same time,” she said.
Her daughters stood beside her with their friend Katya, who lives with her family in another bunker along the same row of garages. Katya has made another friend in the neighbourhood, a green lizard she holds in her hand, stroking its head.
Picture: Alina, 12, and Kristina, 11, sleep in a bunker as Russian shells rain down in Mykolaiv
Svetlana worries about her children living below the ground, no longer free to run about on the streets and in parks.
“Of course, they want their old life, to play with their friends, not to live and sleep in a garage,” she said.
Sound of artillery fire
In an area just metres from the frontline outside of Mykolaiv, fields of hay and sunflowers stretch out into the distance.
The area was alive with the crack-crack of artillery fire and about 100 metres away, smoke billowed from an earlier Russian shelling targeting Ukrainian forces holed up in trenches.
At the side of a road an abandoned school stood scarred by the shelling. Moscow’s forces bombed it on June 23, according to locals. To the left of the entrance, there was a crater about 10 metres in width with a twisted railing lying at its base. The latter was ripped off the boundary of the building in the explosion and as I inspected it, a black Labrador dog padded down into the crater and curled up beside the broken metal.
Most residents in these villages dotted outside Mykolaiv have long fled as Russia briefly occupied much of this area after its invasion on February 24. But there are a few locals who ignored the order to evacuate. Some didn’t have the money to flee. Some didn’t have the energy and some just didn’t want to.
Avtandil Mykhailovych, 60, is one of them. He was standing at another crater near his home and when I approached him he got close to my face, shouting with rage and shaking his fist. But he was not angry at me, he was lashing out at Moscow, angry at the idea that he should have to pack his bags.
“I won’t go because I have nowhere to go. And it’s them who should leave our homeland, not me,” he said.
He gestured to the crater and then to the sound of artillery fire to the north. “I got used to living here, and nothing worse can come for me from this war,” he said, adding: “If we don’t stop Russians, they will go further.”
Gesturing again to the crater, he explained that Russia shelled here last month.
Picture: Ivan Kuznetsov stands at site of Russian shelling at school in Mykolaiv region
“There were two women teachers here, and two security, who were cleaning the area. They just went inside to have lunch and 15 minutes after that the missiles hit this part. Luckily nobody was injured, but it was not luck, it was God’s help.”
Not everyone is as lucky, or blessed.
‘Gift’ of landmines
Ivan Kuznetsov is a bomb disposal expert and told me about the dangers his experts face in the field when dismantling an explosive device.
“It’s ripping the flesh apart, mostly legs. Shrapnel injuries, it causes heavy bleeding,” he said. “It happened to two of my colleagues, but they’re safe and sound now.”
Kuznetsov, 33, explained that he and his team of 15 bomb disposal experts are tasked with clearing mines from an area outside of Mykolaiv, more than 130 kilometres north east of Odesa.
Russian forces are just four kilometres to the north, but the warfare at the moment is tit-for-tat shelling with neither side advancing an inch in weeks.
But it wasn’t always like that. Russia’s army moved close to Mykolaiv until the Ukrainians repelled them.
Picture: Ivan Kuznetsov at a safe house in Mykolaiv region where his bomb disposal unit stayed
In their retreat, they left the “gift” of hundreds of landmines to impede the local troops from pushing them further back. When they explode they punch holes in tanks and military vehicles and rip off arms and legs.
“The idea is to slow down our advance, so the more mines they left, the slower our advance is,” Ivan, who is from Mariupol, said.
Like every Ukrainian, Russia’s invasion has turned his life upside down.
Before the war, his job was in Kyiv as a desk-bound software engineer. Now he’s involved in dismantling bombs and saving lives.
“There are plenty of mines and we are trying to clear as many as we can. We can clean up to 20 mines per week. It depends on the position we find them in, but there could be lots left by retreating Russian forces, there could be hundreds,” he said.
He was speaking to me in a safe house where he and his bomb disposal team rest in between their shifts. The windows are blacked out to avoid the light giving their location away to a Russian spotter plane or drone. The walls in the rundown house are pale blue, and the plaster is peeling.
Picture: Bomb disposal unit member Ivan Kuznetsov shows a piece of exploded Russian shell in Mykolaiv region
In one corner, a fishing rod leaned on box of medical aid, which had a pink butterfly painted on the side. Beside it a man rested on a bed, watching videos on his phone.
The job for Kuznetsov and his team is to clear out the landmines, dotted in forest belts and across fields where now abandoned tractors once worked the land.
He said the work for his 15-man unit involves walking in parallel in a given area, using their eyes to scan for mines as well as drones.
Moscow’s army, he said, expected a team such as his to come along to clear up their dirty work and left surprises.
“They even left some children’s toys – it is for the person who might pick this up in an absent-minded mistake. So when you first enter some de-occupied area, you should consider that everything could be mined,” he said.
It’s a dangerous task, especially without full body armour which most modern armies would have, but he believes he is doing something important as part of his country’s response to Russia’s invasion.
“When I decided to join the army I was thinking that I need to do something more useful than to just sit in the trenches, and I think this is a noble profession,” he said.
The nobility of it does not reduce the danger of death, but Kuznetsov said he does not let that worry him.
“I try not to think about that, I try to be ready for that. We should be ready for this once we join the army,” he said.
Ukraine Rescue Mission
On a dirt track outside a house, we stood under a clear sky shortly before 5pm.
A bony dog, his skin hanging limp from his ribs, nosed through long grass. A family pet abandoned by its owners seeking safety elsewhere.
A black Mitsubishi Shogun pulled up in the dirt road, kicking up dust, and a heavily built man wearing military fatigues, a flak jacket, green baseball cap and black books jumped out.
The Shogun featured something I did not expect to see in this part of war-torn Ukraine, a British registration plate. On his right sleeve, the man wore both Ukraine’s flag and a Union Flag.
This wasn’t a foreign fighter picking up arms, however. Instead, his role is to help the Ukrainian cause by delivering aid to the troops.
The man, who would only give his name as Mill, is the founder of an informal organisation called the Ukraine Rescue Mission (URM) which he runs on Facebook.
Picture: Mill, the founder of Ukraine Rescue Mission, stands amid the remains of destroyed farm buildings on the outskirts of the city of Mykolaiv
He opened the rear door of his car and pulled out bags and boxes of food and medical supplies, including much-needed tourniquets for soldiers injured in battle.
The aid drop-off was not just basic staples that soldiers need, there were also some goodies.
“It sounds stupid but even a Snickers bar is a treat for them, and it’s basically just to keep them going,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys who haven’t seen their families for four months while at war. But our work – it’s hard to get the food to the frontlines, it’s high risk.”
Mill moved off to carry boxes into the bomb disposal team’s safehouse, while I stood next to Volodymyr Ostrovskyi, one of Kuznetsov’s bomb disposal team members. The 40 year old, who goes by the name Vakula, has an Amish-like beard and was wearing a black T-shirt and a camouflage sun hat. In his hand was a joystick that operated the drone whirring above us, a practice run for the bomb disposal shift that lay ahead.
An odd sound erupted in the sky — ‘whoosh, whoosh’ — and I tensed. The soldier, landed the drone and threw a flak jacket over his left shoulder.
“That’s the Ukrainian army firing to the Russians,” Ostrovskyi said, smiling. It’s the local troops’ turn to launch rockets at the Russian frontline, in retaliation for the earlier shelling.
Ostrovskyi knows that the bomb disposal team’s task, although important, won’t beat the Russian army. It is artillery warfare and the army which shoots the missiles the longest distance that will win.
Until recently, Russia had the upper hand. The missiles Russia fires have a range of over 60 kilometres, according to the Ukrainian military, allowing Moscow’s army to hit the city of Mykolaiv from its frontline 30 kilometres away.
In a boost to the Ukrainian army, however, the US earlier this month donated 12 high-mobility artillery rocket systems (Himars) to Ukraine, and four more are on the way, in a tranche of aid worth $400 million. On Wednesday, Lloyd Austin, the US defense secretary, promised another four, which will bring the total to 16.
The missile-launching platforms allow Kyiv’s troops to fire missiles up to a distance of 80 kilometres. Importantly, Himars are more accurate than Russia's equivalent systems and this has already allowed Ukraine to land missile strikes deep into Russian-held territory.
On July 12, the Ukrainian army struck a large Russian ammunition storage site in the town of Nova Kakhovka, in Russia-occupied Kherson, Ukrainian officials said.
The missile strike left seven dead, according to Russian officials who accused Ukraine of bombing “peaceful cities with American weapons”.
In a further blow to Moscow, the Ukrainian army on Wednesday struck and seriously damaged a bridge that is key for supplying Russian troops in southern Ukraine, a regional official said.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Moscow-backed temporary administration for the Russia-controlled southern Kherson region, said the Ukrainian military struck the Antonovsky bridge, a 1.4-kilometre crossing of the Dnieper river, that connects Kherson with Russian-occupied Crimea.
The UK’s ministry of defence said the bridge was likely still usable after the Ukrainian strikes, but described it as a "key vulnerability for Russian forces”.
Moscow didn’t wait long to respond.
On Wednesday, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said its military “tasks” in Ukraine now went beyond the eastern Donbas region.
“Now the geography is different. It’s far from being just the [occupied] DPR (Donetsk People's Republic) and LPR (Luhansk People's Republic). It’s also Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and a number of other territories,” he said, referring to areas beyond the Donbas that Russia has partly or wholly seized.
Lavrov said Moscow might need to push even deeper if the West kept supplying Ukraine with long-range weapons such as the Himars – supplies which he said were driven by “impotent rage” or a desire to aggravate the conflict further.
At the Ukrainian bomb disposal team’s safehouse outside Mykolaiv, Ostrovskyi is confident what the war will swing in favour of Kyiv’s army.
“We have people,” he said, throwing his hands up in the air. “What we need is more guns, more systems, more missiles. We have no choice, we must win.”
Freshly dug trenches
Joining Mill in the Shogun, we trundled along the 20-minute drive south west back towards Mykolaiv.
He pulled up in a military camp where soldiers stood around what looked like freshly dug trenches. One stepped in front of the Shogun to cross the road and take up a position below a tree.
At the trenches, one soldier filled up a water canister while another smoked a cigarette. About 100 metres away to the north, trails of smoke carried in wisps towards the sky after a shell pounded into a field.
Mill walked back to the Shogun, where I sat waiting, with a Ukrainian soldier in tow. Mill’s tattooed hands and knuckles pulled out a pack of Lucky Strike, while I asked the soldier if I could interview him and his colleagues.
He was about five foot five, pale and stick thin with a rusty beard. He looked at me with hollow eyes when I flashed my military press accreditation at him.
“It is commander who say, not me,” he said, puffing on one of Mill’s Luckies. Calls were made to the commander on a radio that crackles and the answer came back to my interview request: “No, it is too dangerous.”
This is because the Russian army for some reason tends to unleash its worst shelling from early evening into the early hours of the morning and it was after 7pm.
I threw my pen and notebook into my backpack and Mill drove us back to Mykolaiv city, along a potholed road that carved through fields of sunflowers. On the way, I spotted a rocket launcher inching out of a clump of trees to our right, as the Ukrainian army was gearing up to counter the heavy Russian shelling on the way.
Attack on Dachne
In Odesa, a state to the west of Mykolaiv, Russian shells pounded a village shortly after midnight on Tuesday.
The attack on Dachne, 30 kilometres north west of Odesa city, damaged two school buildings, three private houses, and left six people injured, including a five-month-old baby.
Videos taken in the early hours of the morning after the attack showed fire fighters hosing down flames in burning buildings.
Other footage showed paramedics cleaning the bloodied face of an elderly woman who was crying. The next afternoon, 37-year-old mother of two Valentina stood outside her house showing me damage from the missile strike that included the windows being blown out and a part of the roof caving in. She said she and her family were lucky to have survived the attack.
“When the air bomb siren alerted we hid under the bed, so when the bombs exploded we were already hiding,” Valentina, who did not want to give her surname, said.
“It was so frightening. Thank God no one was injured or harmed in any way, so everyone was alive and in good health.”
Andrew Shumko, 14, and his mother Helen Shumko, stood at a building two doors up where the roof had caved in on one side of the house.
Picture: Andrew Shumko, 14, at the site of his house in Dachne, Odesa after it was hours earlier damaged by Russian missiles that hit the village
He walked over broken tiles scattered around the garden and described how his family were building the house on the land and were fortunate that they weren’t there when the missiles began to hit.
“I was so scared when I heard the news,” he said. “But it is not anger that I feel at what Russia is doing to my country. I am just at a sense of loss. It is so hard.”
The Kremlin’s forces had fired seven Kalibr missiles from its warships in the assault on the strategic Black Sea port city shortly after midnight, Ukrainian officials said. Ukraine’s missile defence systems reportedly managed to shoot down only one of them, with the other rockets landing in the village of Dachne.
Opposite Shumko’s house, there was a field between a school and a children’s play area, with swings and slides.
Picture: Helen Shumko at the site of her house in Dachne, Odesa after it was hours earlier damaged by Russian missiles that hit the village
The debris from the missile strike was being cleaned up as I spoke to him. Workers in hard hats directed a tractor that lifted a knocked-down electric pylon next to a smouldering crater. Locals stood around it, looking in and taking pictures while a young girl in a pink dress cried.
Russia claimed it had targeted a munitions storage site in Dachne, but at the scene in the field, there was no stockpile of arms to be seen, only churned earth, the smell of smoke, and fragments from the exploded missile scattered about.
"I just want to get through this,” Nastya Yarovaya, 31, said. “God, I hope we will never have to live through this again."
Scars of war
Lviv, in north-western Ukraine, borders Poland and is more than 1,000 kilometres away from the frontline to the east. But, on Thursday morning, the scars of war on every corner of Ukraine could be seen.
Mourners lined up outside the historic Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in the old town for the funeral of a sergeant killed in battle.
Picture: Pallbearers carry the coffin of Ihor Mykhailyshyn, 26, a sergeant in the Azov battalion, in a funeral in Lviv
Eight soldiers wearing navy blue berets, and black and red armbands, shouldered a coffin into the church. Most people stood and watched in silence. One woman blessed herself and another was on her knees crying.
The soldier was Ihor Mykhailyshyn, 26, a sergeant in the Azov battalion who died on March 20 in Mariupol. His unit defended the Azovstal steel plant.
The four-month delay in his funeral was because the Russian occupiers who seized the steel plant didn’t immediately hand over the bodies of the dead Ukrainian soldiers. The Ukrainian government had to negotiate for the return of their remains.
Picture: Ihor Mykhailyshyn, 26, a sergeant in the Azov battalion, was slain in Mariupol as his unit defended the Azovstal steel plant
Inside the church, a troop of soldiers encircled the coffin where it was placed at the front of the altar. Five priests of the orthodox church stood just back from it, one holding up a giant gold cross as he and the other priests sang a sombre homily. The widow, wearing a black dress, wept.
Picture: Funeral of Ihor Mykhailyshyn, 26, a sergeant in the Azov battalion, in a funeral in Lviv
Ukrainians such as Ostrovskyi of the bomb disposal unit see no end to the number of dead soldiers piling up in this war. He believes that the conflict will not end in peace talks, but by the Ukrainian army getting more supplies of long-range rockets to defeat the Russian troops who have invaded the country.
“We have no choice,” he said. “I have a child and I want him to grow up in a Ukraine without Russia.”