Mayor of Embattled Southern Ukrainian City Urges All Residents to Leave

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-06-25 13:43:10 : Roger Cohen

MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — The mayor of this embattled southern port city, under attack from Russian forces since the start of the war, has called for “everyone who wants to survive” to leave, because “it’s not clear when all this will be over.”

The mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, said in an interview with Radio Liberty that the city was being shelled daily, and that “around 80 percent of those munitions are cluster munitions” fired from Russian multiple-launch rocket systems.

A large exodus from Mykolaiv, once a major hub of Soviet shipbuilding, has already occurred. About 230,000 people remain in the city, less than half of its peacetime population of 480,000. Many are older, and about 80 percent of them survive on food and clothes distributed by aid organizations.

The strategic importance of the city is pivotal. Almost overrun in the first weeks of fighting, Mykolaiv’s defenders have pushed Russian forces back to a distance of at least 20 miles at their closest point. Still, the Russian army is close enough to inflict casualties and damage at will with missiles and artillery.

The mayor’s statement was somewhat surprising, in that the combative, never-say-die spirit of Mykolaiv has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. The city is calmer than in March, when the bombardment was relentless. Departures have slowed to a trickle.

Among those remaining in Mykolaiv are tens of thousands of people who have already moved once, from surrounding villages either taken or immediately threatened by Russian forces.

Vitaliy Kim, the head of the regional military administration, has become something of a national idol through his consistent bravura in video and other messages, calling the Russian army “stupid,” among other dismissive remarks.

Mykolaiv stands between the Russian invading force and Odesa, Ukraine’s largest maritime city 70 miles to the west. A landlocked Ukraine deprived of access to the Black Sea, the conduit for much of its grain and other exports, would be a seriously compromised power. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has made no secret of coveting Odesa, founded by a Russian empress, as part of his own imperial plans.

“Shelling is from the Kherson region,” the mayor said in the Radio Liberty interview, alluding to the city about 40 miles to the east that Russian forces captured early in the war. “That’s why it’s impossible to switch on the siren in advance. The shells explode in the city and then the siren goes.” He added that “highly precise” cruise missiles had ruined the city’s infrastructure.

Mayors in other parts of Ukraine have advised residents not actively involved in the resistance effort to leave cities under attack. But Mr. Senkevych’s request appeared more sweeping. The interview was published on Friday, but it was not clear when it was conducted.

At least 111 civilians have been killed in Mykolaiv since late February. Military casualties are not known.

One Russian missile hit a residential area of Mykolaiv a little over a week ago, killing one person and injuring 20. Another on Wednesday hit grain and vegetable oil terminals at the port. At the same time, however, Ukrainian forces have counterattacked in the Kherson area; they say they have recaptured some villages.

In a separate interview this week with The New York Times, Mr. Senkevych, 40, said he expected the war to go on “at least until April or May next year.” He described the people still in the city as older people “ready to die here,” comparing them, in a seemingly odd analogy, to Pharaohs “who do not want to leave their pyramids.”

Evacuations had been running at four to eight buses a day early in the war, but were now down to one or two a week, the mayor said. There was no suggestion in The Times interview that the mayor, whose own wife and two children left Mykolaiv within “2.5 hours of the first bombardment,” thought that anyone wanting to survive should leave.

Mr. Senkevych said in that interview that he had received messages from Russian forces urging him to surrender. “Mayor, you have to give up, you don’t want to end up like Mariupol,” one of these messages said, a reference to the Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov that Russia besieged, flattened and ultimately captured.

“They think the mayor can decide to surrender!” he said dismissively.

Marc Santora contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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