MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — The disputed city of Mykolaiv emerged on Monday from a 54-hour lockdown in which officers went door-to-door searching for collaborators officials say are responsible for helping Russian forces identify targets for the missiles flying the city beech every day.
The governor of the Mykolaiv region, Vitaliy Kim, declared the dramatic operation — which sealed the city, preventing residents from entering or leaving — a success. Five people were arrested, he said, and a number of weapons and communications equipment were seized, although he did not provide details.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience over the weekend, but it was worth it,” Mr Kim said in a video message Monday morning.
He added: “No Russian-speaking person was shot.”
According to Mr Kim, the need to exterminate employees was particularly acute in Mykolaiv. Few places in Ukraine have experienced the kind of sustained barrage of Russian fire as this city on the south coast. Since the war started nearly five and a half months ago, there have been barely two dozen days without violence.
According to the city’s mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, the attacks destroyed about 1,200 houses and apartment buildings. He said 132 residents have been killed and more than 619 injured in Russian attacks since the start of the war.
Amid the devastation, some residents said the controls for collaborators brought some comfort despite the inconvenience.
“It calmed us down a bit,” said Valentina Hontarenko, 74, who sold kvass, a popular drink made from fermented bread, at a newsstand. “They asked about our connections to Russia. We have none.”
During the lockdown, officers went door-to-door, stopping people in the street, checking their documents and scrolling through their phones for evidence that they may have been collaborating with Russian forces. Video of the operation released by local authorities shows officers checking computers and text messages on phones.
In a screenshot of a text message exchange with a mobile phone – the authenticity of which could not be confirmed – someone with the screen name Mykolaiv People’s Republic describes part of the city as full of military equipment and soldiers. The answer: “Send the coordinates.”
Mykolaiv is a largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of nearly 500,000. Since the days of Imperial Russia, it has been an important center for shipbuilding and home to the Soviet Union’s most important universities specializing in that profession. It is the city that built the cruiser Moskva, the famous flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet. The sinking of the ship by Ukrainian troops in April provided a huge morale boost for the Ukrainians and an embarrassment to the Kremlin.
The city borders the Kherson region, which is largely occupied by Russian troops. That region is now the scene of daily clashes as Ukrainian forces launch a counter-offensive to push Russian forces back east across the Dnipro River. Part of Ukraine’s defenses run through the Mykolaiv region, and Ukrainian troops often come to the city in turns or for a break from the front lines.
While most Russian artillery cannot reach Mykolaiv, Russian forces have hit it off with long-range missiles.
For weeks, Mr. Kim has been warning of threats from associates, civilians sympathetic to Russia who help its military by providing information and Ukrainian troop locations. But he has released few details and it is unclear how pernicious the problem is. Before the weekend’s close, only a handful of people had been arrested on suspicion of aiding the enemy.
Last month, the hugely popular Mr. Kim sent a message to his approximately 677,000 followers on Telegram in which he offered a $100 bounty for any information leading to an employee’s arrest.
“Help save Mykolaiv from rocket attacks,” he wrote.
The lockdown over the weekend was part of that. It started at 11pm on Friday and in the hours before it went into effect, massive traffic flows formed at the west exit of the city as people tried to flee. Even without the daily attacks, life in Mykolaiv is tough. Few restaurants and shops are open and for weeks now only salt water has been pouring out of the taps. Fresh water is driven into the city every day.
Hanna Zamazeeva, the chairman of Mykolaiv’s regional council, said the operation to identify employees corresponded to a relatively quiet weekend for the city, although she could not say whether the lockdown was the cause.
“The intensity of shelling in civilian neighborhoods in the city has decreased significantly compared to previous days,” she said in a Telegram message.
Residents of Mykolaiv described the law enforcement inspections as non-confrontational, though some bourgeois libertarians in Western countries may cringe.
“It wasn’t very comfortable,” said a 35-year-old woman named Yelena, who stood in line with her husband to get water from a truck. “They came and checked everything – passports, telephones. They looked at who lived where.”
She added: “What to fear if everything is fine?”
Although people complained that they were confined to their homes for an entire weekend, few protested and most welcomed the effort. Dmitry Boychenko, the driver of a truck that delivers water to Mykolaiv daily from nearby Odessa, said the lockdown has allowed him to reconnect with neighbors. Residents were allowed to leave their homes but were urged to stay in their courtyards, leading to impromptu outdoor gatherings.
“There are people here who are releasing the locations of our boys,” Mr Boychenko said. “It may be sad, but we have traitors to our motherland here.”