The cracked kitchen clock still shows the moment the first Russian missile shattered the courtyard of a Soviet-era building facing Ukraine on the southern front, in Mykolaiv, one of the key cities in the next stage of the conflict .
The second S.300 missile exploded a minute later, at 1:44 a.m. By then, Gennadiy Gerulo had already fallen out of bed, realizing that much of his old way of life had disappeared.
The engineer looked out his shattered kitchen window hours later and saw the strikes on the port city of Mykolaiv as a sign of near victory.
“He’s like a jealous lover”believes the 50-year-old when speaking of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He says if he can’t have Ukraine, nobody can.”
Cities in southern Ukraine, such as Mykolaiv, will play a crucial role in the next stage of the grueling war that the master of the Kremlin began exactly eight months ago.
A meteoric Ukrainian counter-offensive, which forced the Russians out of the territories they had seized in the more industrial north, reached the agricultural south.
And towns such as Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih, about three hours by car northeast, offer the Ukrainians two bases from which to launch their impending attacks.
The latest wave of missiles, which injured four, reinforced the belief of Svetlana Tichevska, a neighbor of engineer Gennadiy Gerulo, that Ukraine is on the right track.
Russian authorities are already evacuating the nearby city of Kherson – the only regional capital the Russians managed to control throughout the war, which began on February 24.
A Ukrainian victory in this area would sever the land bridge the Kremlin established between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014.
It would also restore significant access to the Sea of Azov and leave Mr. Putin little leeway in a military campaign that has turned him into an international pariah.
Cleaning up debris from the stairwell a few floors below the engineer, Svetlana Tichevska expresses almost the same thoughts as her neighbor.
“He is like a wounded animal”she said, speaking of the Russian president. “He destroys himself and wants to drag others down with him.”
The retaining wall of Svetlana’s building cracked and the facade of a smaller building across the courtyard partially collapsed.
Few residents think of staying in one or other of the buildings. “I think victory is near”believes this 50-year-old woman, in the midst of the destruction.
The trail of destruction from retreating Russian forces has sparked hostility towards Moscow in places where many residents prefer to speak Russian and have family across the border.
Guennadiï Gerulo, Russian-speaking, said not known “nothing but hatred, pure hatred for these people who call themselves our brothers”.
The overwhelming majority of attacks targeted Mykolaiv and surrounding towns after midnight, or when people wake up and go out for the first time in the day.
The timing intrigues many. Some believe that Russia may be trying to demoralize Ukrainians by depriving them of sleep.
“The Russians want to wear us down and avoid civil unrest. They want us to force our government to give up”says the engineer. “They don’t know any other ways.”
Mykolaiv became Moscow’s target in the first weeks of the invasion. The Russians were gobbling up huge gains and targeting the nearby Black Sea port of Odessa, a cultural capital mentioned by Putin when he entered the war.
Mykolaiv suffers for the second time with the withdrawal of Russian troops. But Lioudmila Falko, an academic and part-time volunteer, seems almost joyous as she rummages through what’s left of her daughter’s apartment.
“These suicide drones and missiles are his last acts”assures this 60-year-old woman about the Russian president. “Children are dying, old people are dying because he is dying.”
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