APOCALYPTIC SCENES: A bridge in Voznesensk, blown to stop the Russian advance (Image: Paul Kenyon)

The flattening of parts of their city and killing of civilians has alienated them from old allegiances. It’s a huge own-goal by Vladimir Putin. When I saw crying children amid rubble, I realized he has created a visceral loathing of Russia that will continue for generations. Putin’s forces currently surround this strategically important city – one of several they must take to create a land corridor to the Black Sea port of Odesa – on three sides and its people are facing a battle for their existence.

There are fears the city may become the next Mariupol, cut off and flattened by artillery fire, missiles and air attacks, with hundreds of civilians killed and injured in scenes that would be almost unimaginable were they not taking place.

In Mykolayiv, there is a grim determination and, at 6pm every evening without fail, a siren sounds and the lights go out across the city almost simultaneously. There is a curfew and a total blackout, not a single light left on.

Mykolayiv’s mayor Oleksandr Senkevych – a Kalashnikov carrying former IT worker and university graduate whose biggest pre-war headache was trying to get a new bridge built – tells me the Blitz-style blackout does little to stop Russian strikes.

“But it keeps people together.

They feel a sense of unity in switching off the lights, that they are doing something for the greater good, “he says.

At the moment, this unity is of vital importance to Mykolayiv’s survival. As we travel through the city after curfew, it is utterly deserted but for checkpoints manned by civilian militia who also protect important buildings.

The full-time, professional army (for almost everyone is a soldier of sorts these days, the population having taken up arms) is manning the barricades at the edge of the suburbs and operating behind enemy lines.

Oleksandr is under no illusions as to his vulnerability. He has sent his wife and family into hiding and switches location every night to avoid being targeted by Russian spies, saboteurs or assassins.

Mayors are among the first targets when the invaders arrive.

Some have been kidnapped from occupied towns and replaced by Kremlin mouthpieces. At least one, Yuri Illich Prylypk, was shot dead by Russian forces in the Kyiv suburb of Hostomel.

When I ask Oleksandr what will happen if he is captured, this modest, bright man, certainly no self-publicist, replies quietly: “They will not take me. I will die for the cause.” On the streets of Mykolayiv, I heard this a lot. Attacks by aircraft, artillery and devastating BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems have decimated parts of the city.

Early last week, one night attack went on for more than an hour, the huge blasts rocking our hotel. Russian claims that they are only targeting military sites are nonsense. We visited the damaged area – a previously smart, middleclass suburb – the next day.

One man I spoke to had lost his wife. Their home was almost entirely destroyed except for the kitchen, where there was food still on plates, pastries I suspect his wife had made before she was killed before his eyes. She had just turned 60 and when I asked what had happened, his response was visceral. He wrapped both arms around me and sobbed.

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Battle damage (Image: Paul Kenyon)

He showed us a photo of himself and his wife in happier times; they were on either side of a large tree with a huge trunk, each hugging it from either side. She looked young and happy, the sort of decent person you’d be happy to have as a neighbor.

The front lines are extremely fluid. The Russians control the north, east and south of Mykolayiv, with a single road leading out of the city to the west and Ukrainian forces controlling ground for a few miles on either side.

Trenches surround the city center but they are just holes in the ground. If you put your head above the edge, it’s likely to be shot off. This is warfare, First World War-style.

We traveled to one of the airports – Mykolayiv International – which in normal times is shared between civilian and military. We were told Russian forces had been pushed back.

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Panorama’s Paul Kenyon with Ukrainian forces (Image: Paul Kenyon)

The Ukrainians, however, were not entirely in control. They were still clearing buildings and our security expert asked us to leave.

While I was in Mykolayiv, I saw reinforcements in tanks and armored cars arriving.

The Ukrainians have said they will fight to the death and everything I witnessed seems to bear this out. Their fortitude is impressive. But they are fighting for their homeland and lives, opposing Russian troops, many young conscripts, who seem not to know what they are fighting for.

A short drive north is another strategically important town, Voznesensk.

It was half taken by the Russians until a three-day battle early last week ended with Putin’s men being forced out.

One of those involved in the battle was a builder, another a guy who lived in Poland but had returned to the place of his birth to fight. We were invited to see a mortuary train in which the bodies of dead Russian servicemen were being stored. Its driver took us into the compartment – the kind you might expect machinery to be transported in – where six bodies lay on the floor.

I expected them to be in body bags or boxes but the corpses, some loosely wrapped in plastic, were piled on the floor. The driver said they’d been kept busy.

When I counted the bodies, he told me: “There will be thousands by the end of this.”

The successful push back of the Russians from Voznesensk has left death and devastation every where.

This is entirely counter-productive to what Russia might have hoped for. When you see your neighbors killed, and homes, offices, shops and civic buildings flattened in random attacks, you’re unlikely to fall for hearts-andminds propaganda.

Some of the people here would have been sympathetic to Russia but that is lost, for several generations and possibly for ever.

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On Friday, safely back in London, I interviewed former Russian spyturned-politician Maria Butina.

Convicted in 2018 of being an unregistered foreign agent in the United States and jailed for five months, she was elected to the State Duma last year, representing Putin’s United Russia party.

She refused to believe I had seen, first-hand, rockets coming from the Russianheld areas.

“We cannot be sure unless there is 100 percent proof,” she repeatedly told me.

“Perhaps you are mistaken about where they were coming from? Nobody has shown us evidence of these Russian attacks.”

It was like talking to someone in a parallel universe. To her, what I experienced was “fake news”.

It is an alternate reality, created by supporters of Vladimir Putin who may or may not believe it, but it feels like the clocks have been turned back 30 years … to the depths of the Cold War.

Watch Paul Kenyon’s Panorama, Ukraine’s Resistance: Standing Up To Putin, at 8pm tomorrow on BBC One

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