Mykolaiv’s Governor Vitaliy Kim on threats from above, on the ground, and within – NV exclusive

14 November 2022, 02:31 PM
Mykolaiv Regional State Administration (Photo:Anthony Bartaway)

Mykolaiv Regional State Administration (Photo:Anthony Bartaway)

Wars have a habit of producing folk heroes, and Ukraine now has a gallery of them – soldiers, politicians, pickle jar-armed grandmothers. One who stands out is Vitaliy Kim, the media-savvy governor of the frontline and formerly besieged Mykolaiv Oblast.

His skill as a communicator and hands-on approach to guiding the region under his command has endeared him to his people and made him a darling of the press. It certainly stands out that, like President Zelensky, he is an ethnic minority. The prominent leader of a battlefield region being a half-Korean Russophone is a jarring juxtaposition with the false Russian narrative of frenzied Ukrainian ethnonationalism.

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NV met with Governor Kim at an undisclosed location in downtown Mykolaiv. Afterward, he directed his press officer to take us into his former offices, which were bombed in a Russian air raid on March 29th. Thirty-seven people were killed in the attack, and if he had been in the office that morning, he would have likely been among them.

Mykolaiv Governor Vitalii Kim (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
Mykolaiv Governor Vitalii Kim / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

The Threat in the Air

Air defense was the main topic that Kim addressed – up until the November 11th liberation of Kherson, the southern end of the front lines ran through Mykolaiv oblast, while Mykolaiv’s now-locked-down historic center was a mere 30 km from Russian positions. While Russia does have to be more judicious with its limited supply of long-range missiles, the city is well in range of their far larger stockpiles of shorter-range Grad rockets, and other systems operating out of Kherson Oblast. These shorter distances, he explains, mean that they have less time to react - to see incoming fire in time to sound an air raid alarm or shoot it down.

Over time, the use of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) has led to some improvements in being able to strike back against launch sites, but that is only relative. Mykolaiv is hit every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. The night before we spoke to Governor Kim, a rocket struck an area a mere ten-minute walk away from the site of this interview. More recently, Russia has begun using suicide drones – which can be even harder to track.

According to the governor, Ukraine is attempting to ameliorate some of these challenges by deploying American-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS). Once fully operational, NASAMS will be able to greatly improve Mykolaiv’s air defense capabilities which were, at that point, “not stable.” He was extremely optimistic about the prospects of what the NASAMS can accomplish.

However, Kim did share one concern that many Ukrainians might recognize – that, despite being under near-constant attack, the people of Mykolaiv may have become a bit too comfortable with the status quo. While alarms may not be as reliable this close to the Russian lines as they are in Kyiv or elsewhere, Mykolaiv residents have long since stopped running to air raid shelters multiple times a day. This balance, between constantly hiding in shelters and living life normally, has shifted far too much to the latter, the governor believes.

Mykolaiv Regional State Administration (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
Mykolaiv Regional State Administration / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

The Threat on the Ground

Other than the missiles in the air, the other main threat to Mykolaiv are the Russian soldiers on the ground. Before the Ukrainian army broke the siege of the city, the Russians were at the proverbial gates. The city, which is situated on a peninsula on the eastern, and therefore exposed, bank of the broad Southern Buh river, was nearly cut off. While Governor Kim was certain that the Russians would not be able to regain that ground, he did share his concerns about the enemy being able to fully deploy their recently mobilized conscripts.

“More people, more weapons, more problems,” he explained, optimistic but cautious, contrasting with the more dismissive attitude of some Ukrainians towards Russia’s conscripted units.

Kim’s larger concern with Russia’s ‘partial mobilization’ was that the Russians could use it as a tool to expand the forcible conscription of Ukrainian citizens into the Russian military. Russia has long used this tactic, even as far back as the initial invasion in 2014. Now, Russia delusionally considers the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson oblasts, as well as the Crimean peninsula, to be parts of the Russian Federation, and therefore subject to the same conscription laws as anywhere else.

“They will mobilize our Ukrainians to fight against their own country,” Kim emphasized.

Mykolaiv Regional State Administration (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
Mykolaiv Regional State Administration / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

The Threat Within

At the start of the full-scale war, a number of high-ranking security officials in Kherson Oblast defected to Russia, with the SBU later releasing a list of alleged traitors. Some experts believe that these defections helped Russia occupy Kherson, by weakening the defenses there. NV asked Governor Kim whether this threat from the inside still remained.

Governor Kim answered that there were two ways in which Ukraine was countering Russian espionage – a low-level approach, and a high-level one. On the lower level, the SBU and other security services were hard at work seeking out informants, artillery spotters, saboteurs, and other on-the-ground operatives, he said, adding that these ground-level efforts had been very successful. These turncoats were by now a very well-contained threat, Kim noted.

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As for high-level officials who may have turned traitor, he said that this was not a significant problem either.

“There were no big powerful collaborators in Mykolaiv Oblast,” the governor elaborated.

“Even people who were working in the Opposition Bloc (a pro-Russian party now banned in Ukraine – ed.). Yes, the pro-Russians. Almost all of them are now helping Ukraine with fighting Russia. And only one or two escaped from the territory of Ukraine. So we had a different situation in our oblast due to the political situation. That's why I also think we can fight them and roll them back.”

Politically, Kim explained that Mykolaiv was a stronghold for the ruling Servant of the People Party, established by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Kim himself is formally an independent, but still maintains connections with the Servant of the People and, like all regional governors, was appointed by the President’s office.

Servant of the People also dominated in Kherson Oblast, however, and yet some still turned on Ukraine. Oleksii Kovalov, a party member representing the southwestern portion of Kherson Oblast in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, was one of these – he was later “rewarded” for his service when Ukrainian partisans killed him with a car bomb in late August.

Mykolaiv Regional State Administration (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
Mykolaiv Regional State Administration / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

Still blockaded

Mykolaiv isn’t simply important for Ukraine as a strategic frontline city – it’s globally important, given its port. While the facility isn’t as large as neighboring and better-known Odesa, and Mykolaiv is more famed for its shipbuilding rather than its shipping, it is still a major player in exporting foodstuffs, especially grain, abroad.

On August 31, Russia targeted the Mykolaiv port’s grain silos in order to destroy Ukraine’s export capabilities, both harming Ukraine’s economy and inducing a global food shortage. Then, following a deal struck by the UN and Turkey with Russia, known as the “grain initiative”, Mykolaiv was expected to eventually join Odesa as an export hub. However, this has not yet come to pass.

“It is a big pity, because [Mykolaiv] is too close now to the occupied territories and through our geographical situation, it is very hard to provide security for these ships,” Kim said.

“So the situation has not changed yet, but we are working on it. Maybe later it could happen.”

Unlike Odesa, which has a direct route of open sea between itself and the NATO-controlled Bosphorus Strait, any ship leaving Mykolaiv’s port would have to sail through the Russian-occupied Dnipro–Buh estuary, and pass the Kinburn peninsula. Despite these risks, Kim insisted that the Mykolaiv authorities had ensured that the port could be restarted for shipping as soon as the order was given.

Winter expectations

One of the biggest threats Ukraine has had to face in the most recent few months in the war has been attacks on critical infrastructure across the country – notably, Ukraine’s power generation and distribution systems. As Ukraine operates a good number of thermal power plants as well – facilities that produce heat as well as power – striking Ukraine’s power grid means striking its heating systems as well.

“Essentially, you know, in our country before the war we lived very well, because our average temperature in houses in winter is about 25-26 degrees,” Governor Kim told NV, laughing as he recognized that in this respect, Ukraine had some way to fall.

“And I know that in Europe, in winter it can be 17-18 degrees [inside]. So it's not very dangerous for us. Yes, if it will be very bad, we can have temperatures like in Europe, so we will be more economical. So that's why the problem is the military risks because the Russian occupiers can destroy critical infrastructure. And in that way, we will have problems.”

These problems could be severe – authorities in Kyiv, the nation’s capital, have not ruled out the possibility of evacuating the entire city if power problems worsen, while most cities have gone as far as shutting off streetlights in the evenings to conserve energy. In Mykolaiv especially, a drop in power generation capability may spark a serious humanitarian crisis.

Mykolaiv Regional State Administration (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
Mykolaiv Regional State Administration / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

While the liberation of Kherson puts more space between Mykolaiv and the Russian invaders, the city is still vulnerable from the sea and sky. Governor Kim’s role will switch from being a frontline leader to more fully restoring order and services to his war-scarred home region.

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