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The thin yellow line that defends the gate of Odessa

Several people try to leave the port city of Odessa. / AFP

The fate of the Black Sea port city is beginning to be decided 138 kilometers to the east, in the fierce fighting for Mikolaiv

The battle for Odessa is being fought first in Mikolaiv, a city of half a million people 138 kilometers to the east, at the confluence of the Southern Bug and Inhul rivers. The course of the war in this region of the country largely depends on their fate: everyone is waiting for the great Russian landing in Odessa, the main port of Ukraine and a key point from a strategic point of view and also from a symbolic one. , but military analysts agree that such an operation could never prosper without ground support. And for that, the Russians need Mikolaiv, which in recent days has become the target of constant attacks.

Mikolaiv is a communications hub, with a seaport and a river port, and is also home to several shipyards, including the most important in Ukraine. The city shows the obvious signs of the siege in which the Russians have been engaged since last week, which is also leaving civilian victims: on Kherson Avenue, for example, two blocks have ended up completely devastated and three people have died. The three lived at number 23, where yesterday only rubble and two frightened dogs remained. A deathly silence reigned throughout the street, with a desolate landscape of collapsed roofs, shrapnel holes in the walls, and useless vehicles. The neighbors had left, except for a group of men who were trying to make one of the houses hit by the projectiles habitable: “It was terrible. Some planes passed by, they dropped bombs and one of them hit the house where those three people died. Not even the basement has been spared, ”summarized one of the men, Vladi.

“We are peaceful people!”

The Russian troops come from Kherson, the only capital they have managed to take so far, and have repaired a railway line that allows them to move more soldiers and increase the pressure with more attacks. On Tuesday, they wanted to take over the airport and there was an armored car fight that seemed to go in their favor, but the tables turned at nightfall and the Ukrainians kept the facilities in their possession.

Yesterday, the attacks took place relentlessly from three roads, two of them (the H11 and the M14) on the eastern side and the third (the T1507) on the west, where some Russian troops have landed in an attempt to ‘pocket’ the city. Anti-aircraft sirens and explosions were constantly heard, although it was not clear which side they belonged to. “What misfortune! We are peaceful people! », cried an older woman, in a dressing gown in front of the remains of her destroyed house. Mikolaiv is these days a battlefield where combat is palpable, but unlikely leaders have also emerged such as Governor Vitaliy Kim, something like the local Zelensky. Everyone loves Kim, an acerbic and wildly charismatic politician.

In the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, the concept of the Thin Red Line was coined when ‘redcoats’ withstood an attack by a vastly outnumbered army, which had every chance of finishing them off. Today, in this 21st century war, the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are dressed the same, but the latter distinguish themselves by sticking yellow bands. These few Ukrainian soldiers who are defending the Odessa gate with unwavering morale could well be called the thin yellow line.

Nerves and kalashnikovs at airport checkpoints

Getting to Mikolaiv airport is complicated. The fighting continues and you have to overcome successive Ukrainian ‘checkpoints’: as you advance through that chain of checkpoints, the tension boils over. At the last barrier, the man on duty starts screaming and points a kalashnikov at the inside of the vehicle. The nerves are at the limit and, suddenly, a plane passes by and all the soldiers retreat to the ditches. The little use that the Russians are making of aviation is striking, which belies the idea of ​​their presumed air superiority: one would expect a continuous transit of fighters to crush all resistance, but it is not happening.

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