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Joanna Kakissis

Ukraine hunts for pro-Moscow collaborators suspected of helping Russia strike targets

The building housing Mykolaiv's regional government, bombed early in the war, lies in ruins on Aug. 11. Governor Vitaliy Kim says he knew he was the target "because it was my window." Thirty-seven of his colleagues died in the bombing. (Joanna Kakissis/NPR)

MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — Almost every day in this southern port city, there is news of a Russian missile strike — at a university, a cash machine, an apartment building.

Viktoria Komarova is still recovering in the hospital after a strike on a bus stop that killed both her father Andriy and dog Sam.

"We were walking Sam along a street near our home," says the 21-year-old college student, whose leg was broken in several places by shrapnel. "This was a street we walk [down] every day."

Viktoria Komarova, a 21-year-old college student, recovers in a Mykolaiv hospital on Aug. 4. Her leg was broken in several places by shrapnel during a missile strike in which her father was killed. (Joanna Kakissis/NPR)

It was the fourth time the bus stop had been hit, indicating that it was not a random strike. Vitaliy Lukov, the deputy mayor of Mykolaiv, has theories for why Russia could be targeting the site.

"The Russians probably have some coordinates indicating that this place is significant, maybe because they think there is some military facility there or because it's near government administration buildings," Lukov says. "But for the citizens, this place is just a bus stop."

For Komarova and her family, the consequences were devastating. She remembers holding her lifeless dog and reaching for her dying father.

"He could barely stay conscious," she says. "My mother saw everything from the window of our apartment."

Since the start of the war this year, Russia has been bombarding the southern region of Mykolaiv, which is near the coveted port of Odesa. Russian forces control a small portion of the region and said this week that they plan to incorporate this area into the neighboring region of Kherson, much of which is under Russian occupation.

People clean the debris of a residential building destroyed by a strike, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Mykolaiv on Sept. 14. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Last Sunday, a Russian missile hit less than 1,000 feet from the Mykolaiv region's South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant, affecting power lines and breaking windows at the facility.

That attack didn't cause casualties, but local authorities say Russian airstrikes have killed more than 400 people and injured at least 1,000 in the Mykolaiv region since Russia invaded Ukraine seven months ago. About a quarter of those killings have happened in the city of Mykolaiv, the region's administrative center. Ukrainian authorities say the bombardments have intensified in recent weeks as Ukraine carries out a counteroffensive about 40 miles southeast of here to take back Kherson.

Authorities also say the strikes seem to be getting more precise, leading them to suspect some locals might be passing on intelligence to Moscow.

In recent weeks, officials have detained hundreds of suspected collaborators in Mykolaiv, and are investigating if and how they may have provided information that helped Russian forces stage targeted attacks in the area.

A shipping tycoon became a target

A destroyed mansion belonging to Ukrainian agribusiness tycoon Oleksiy Vadaturskyi in Mykolaiv on Aug. 4. Vadaturskyi and his wife Raisa Vadaturska were killed when Russian missiles hit their Mykolaiv mansion on July 31 while they were sleeping in a shelter in the basement. (Joanna Kakissis/NPR)

The hunt for spies intensified late this summer, after Russian missiles hit a mansion in a gated community overlooking the sea, killing 74-year-old Oleksiy Vadaturskyi and his wife, Raisa Vadaturska.

Vadaturskyi was a revered agribusiness entrepreneur and one of the richest men in Ukraine. Unlike other tycoons, he was a self-made multimillionaire who reinvested his profits in his agribusiness company, Nibulon, which employs 7,000 people. Through his company, he helped make Ukraine a major global grain exporter.

The blasts at the Vadaturskyi mansion awoke their next-door neighbor, a tanned, runner-thin man in his 60s who gives his name as Piotr Leonidovich.

"I ran outside and saw smoke billowing from their house," he says, choking back tears. "I called him and his wife over and over but they didn't pick up. Then the emergency services came and found their bodies. The missile hit their basement shelter, where they were sleeping."

The funeral for agribusiness entrepreneur Oleksiy Vadaturskyi, one of Ukraine's richest men, and his wife Raisa Vadaturska in Kyiv on Aug. 5. The funeral was held in Ukraine's capital for safety reasons. A Russian airstrike killed the couple in their home in the southern city of Mykolaiv. (Julian Hayda/NPR)

Long before the war, Vadaturskyi anticipated Russia might block Ukrainian ports, so Nibulon built a fleet of cargo ships to transport grain by river. He also invested heavily in Mykolaiv, prompting some to call him the father of the city.

Roman Waschuk, a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine who is now Ukraine's business ombudsman, says he believes Russian forces targeted Vadaturskyi because "he was so key to the resilience of this whole region."

Hundreds of suspects have been detained

It's not the first time Russian forces targeted a high-profile leader in Mykolaiv.

Early in the war, on March 29, bombs hit a multistory building housing the offices of the Mykolaiv region's governor, Vitaliy Kim.

"I know I am a target for the Russians because it was my window," he says, standing outside the ruined building where 37 of his colleagues died. He survived because he overslept and was late for work.

Vitaliy Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region, on Aug. 11. Kim is intent on hunting down spies who may be passing on information to Russian forces. "Some of them are crazy. Some of them truly believe in Russia," he says of the suspected collaborators, hundreds of whom have been detained. (Joanna Kakissis/NPR)

Kim's office is offering $100 rewards for details on collaborators, but he says most people offering information don't accept the money. "They say, 'Just find these people so the strikes will stop, and give the money to someone who needs it more,' " he says.

So far, he says, hundreds of suspected spies have been detained. "Some of them are crazy," he says. "Some of them truly believe in Russia."

Kim says a small but determined minority of locals want Russia to win. On June 27, the Security Services of Ukraine arrested a local city council member they accused of leaking information about Ukrainian troops and pushing to create a Russia-aligned "Mykolaiv People's Republic."

"Why? I don't know, because the Russians are killing us," Kim says. "Maybe they want to go back in time and live in the USSR."

His hunt for spies has many supporters in Mykolaiv. They include logistics manager Serhii Zubenko, who recently fled Russian-occupied Kherson. He says he "prays every day" that Ukrainian forces will liberate it.

"We are trying to fight to get our land back so it's causing the Russians to get really aggressive," he says. "It freaks me out that there are individuals walking around here helping the Russians during this war."

Some residents are nostalgic for Soviet times

Russian is the main language spoken in Mykolaiv, yet no one in the city shares openly pro-Russian sentiments with NPR.

But Tatiana Mazets, a retired marine engineer, does express nostalgia for the USSR. That's despite a history that includes Josef Stalin's Holodomor famine, which killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s, and decades of Soviet crackdowns on freedom of speech and identity.

"Back then we were all friends, we got along really well," she says. "The Soviet Union educated us and found us jobs, like the one I had in shipbuilding."

Mykolaiv used to be the shipbuilding capital of the Soviet Union. Tetiana Mitkovska, a historian who runs the city's shipbuilding museum, says for decades Mykolaiv constructed all kinds of sea vessels, including freighters, ferries and, of course, warships.

Tetiana Mitkovska, a historian who runs Mykolaiv's shipbuilding museum, in front of the museum on Aug. 4. (Joanna Kakissis/NPR)

"And during the war right now, Ukraine has sunk at least 15 Russian warships that were previously Soviet," she says. "The irony is that these vessels were likely built right here in Mykolaiv."

Among those vessels is the Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet, which Ukrainian forces sank in April.

Life goes on in Mykolaiv, with under half the residents remaining

Before Russia launched its large-scale invasion in February, the city of Mykolaiv had about half a million residents.

Now, after seven months of near-constant strikes, the shipbuilding yards are quiet and only about 200,000 residents remain, according to Lukov, the deputy mayor.

"The people who stay in Mykolaiv have this mentality of, 'We won't leave unless the Russians try to force us out at gunpoint and maybe even then we won't leave,'" he says. "They adapt to the circumstances, and we try to help them."

He says municipal workers keep the city clean and electricity and high-speed internet running. The gas stations are working, and the supermarkets are well-stocked. But many shops, restaurants and cafes have closed.

People inspect and clean their apartments in a residential building destroyed by a strike, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Mykolaiv on Sept. 14. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Lukov is sipping a cappuccino at one of the cafes still open. Several Ukrainian soldiers are also there, meeting with their moms or partners. On sidewalks and streets, residents lug giant plastic jugs of water that's been trucked into the city. The tap water is undrinkable, still salty, yellow and sulfurous after Russian missiles hit the city's main water pipeline in April.

There is so little traffic that busker Ivan Naumov plays his accordion in the middle of the street, singing a Soviet patriotic love song called "Katyusha." Before the war, it was a crowd favorite. Now he stops after getting dirty looks.

"I love this song," he says, "but as you can see no one wants to hear it anymore."

A missile that hit the night before is lodged in a nearby square. Another missile hits that night, and the night after.

Komarova, who survived the attack on the bus stop, hears the explosions at night, from her bed in the hospital.

"We have gotten used to it," she says. "Maybe this was our mistake."

Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this report from Mykolaiv and Julian Hayda from Kyiv.


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