MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — The beleaguered city of Mykolaiv emerged Monday from a 54-hour lockdown in which officers went door to door looking for collaborators who officials say are tasked with helping Russian forces to identify the targets of the rockets that hit the city daily.
Mykolaiv region governor Vitaliy Kim said the dramatic operation – which sealed off the city, preventing residents from entering or leaving – was a success. Five people were arrested, he said, and a number of weapons and communication devices were confiscated, although he did not provide any details.
“I’m sorry for the discomfort over the weekend, but it was worth it,” Mr Kim said in a video message Monday morning.
He added: “No Russian speakers were shot.”
According to Kim, the need to eradicate collaborators has been particularly acute in Mykolaiv. Few places in Ukraine have seen the kind of sustained barrage of Russian fire like this city on the southern coast. Since the start of the war nearly five and a half months ago, there have been barely two dozen days without violence.
The attacks destroyed around 1,200 homes and apartment buildings, according to the city’s mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych. Since the start of the war, he said, 132 residents have been killed and more than 619 injured in Russian attacks.
Amid the devastation, some locals said checks for collaborators provided some comfort, despite the inconvenience.
“It calmed us down a bit,” said Valentina Hontarenko, 74, who was at a kiosk selling kvass, a popular drink made from fermented bread. “They asked about our ties to Russia. We do not have it.
During the lockdown, officers went door to door and arrested people on the street, checking their documents and scrolling through their phones for evidence they might be coordinating 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 exchange on a cellphone – the authenticity of which could not be confirmed – someone with the screen name Mykolaiv People’s Republic describes an area of the city as full military equipment and soldiers. The response: “Send the coordinates.”
Mykolaiv is a predominantly Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of nearly 500,000. It borders the Kherson region, which is largely occupied by Russian forces. This area is now the scene of daily skirmishes as Ukrainian forces wage a counter-offensive aimed at pushing Russian troops east across the Dnipro River. Part of Ukraine’s defensive lines run through the Mykolaiv region, and Ukrainian troops often come to the city on rotation or for a break from the front lines.
Although most Russian artillery could not reach Mykolaiv, Russian forces hit it with long-range rockets.
For weeks, Mr. Kim has warned of threats posed by collaborators, citizens sympathetic to Russia who help its military by providing information and locations of Ukrainian troops. But he released few details and it is unclear how pernicious the problem is. Prior to this weekend’s lockdown, only a handful of people had been arrested on suspicion of aiding the enemy.
Last month, the immensely popular Mr Kim posted a message to his nearly 677,000 Telegram subscribers offering a $100 bounty for information leading to a collaborator’s arrest.
“Help save Mykolaiv from rocket fire,” he wrote.
The weekend lockdown was part of that effort.
Mykolaiv residents described the law enforcement inspections as non-confrontational, though they may make some civil liberties advocates cringe in Western countries.
“It wasn’t very comfortable,” said a 35-year-old woman named Yelena, who was queuing with her husband to fetch water from a truck. “They came and checked everything – passports, phones. They looked at who lived where.
She added: “What is there to fear if everything is in order?”