MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — To win the war, says Vitaliy Kim, you have to love war. “Love what you do, come to terms with the situation you find yourself in, find something good in every circumstance, in small victories, in results.”
Mr. Kim, 41, head of the regional military administration in the beleaguered southern city of Mykolaiv, offers the candid smile that has become the face of Ukrainian resistance along the Black Sea coast. It exudes a quiet confidence that says Russian missiles can hurt us, but they can’t shake the Ukrainian spirit.
Four months ago, Mykolaiv, a port that was once a Soviet shipbuilding hub, was nearly overrun as Russian forces surged out of annexed Crimea, taking the nearby city of Kherson. Mr. Kim responded, in daily video messages, with a catchphrase: “Hello, we are from Ukraine!”
When you face a nuclear-armed power that is the greatest state on Earth that bends without regard for human life over your annihilation, the unshakable belief in victory can be irrational. It is also essential for survival. Weapons alone, however urgent, will not reverse the trend. The will is required.
“It was important to make it clear that the enemy was not as scary as it seemed and to tell the world that we are here, that we exist,“, Mr. Kim said in an interview conducted in a building close to the skeleton of the Mykolaiv regional administration building, which was hit by a Russian cruise missile in late March, killing 38 people.
The message worked. Mr. Kim quickly gained almost half a million followers on Instagram. Like Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president who first lured the former businessman into politics, Mr Kim had a way of boosting morale.
“In the early days of the war, everyone was panicked,” Mr Kim said. “Communications were bad.” He thinks for a moment. “You know, if you’re calm, you make the right decisions.”
Mykolaiv resisted Russia, but the price was high, evident in the destroyed buildings and the dead and wounded civilians and soldiers. More than half of its inhabitants fled. The mayor advised those still in the city to leave as well.
Russian missiles, including 28 in a single night this week, cause periodic havoc. One of them hit a residential building on Wednesday morning, killing at least four people, including a child. There is a lack of drinking water. Of the estimated 230,000 people who remain in the city, few have jobs; most depend on food and clothing distributed by humanitarian organizations.
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Yet perhaps the most commonly heard phrase in Ukraine – “We will win” – is a regular refrain in the ghostly streets of Mykolaiv.
Mr. Kim’s decisions, and the confidence he conveyed, helped push the Russian forces back, keep them at bay, thwart their desire to seize the entire Black Sea coast and rally a city that, like the northeastern industrial city of Kharkiv, has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance.
The city, Mr Kim said, is now “ready and prepared and the chances of Russia taking it are not very great”, although the shelling continues.
As for a counterattack, it will require long-range weapons which Ukraine does not yet have, and more ammunition, he conceded. If Kherson were recaptured from Russia, the war would be different, but that won’t happen tomorrow. Ukrainian forces are severely depleted, but so are Russians, and resignation is not an option.
A photo of Mr Kim looking completely relaxed with his bare feet on his desk in multicolored socks has gone viral. Memes have multiplied. A doctor showed him with his feet raised at one end of the 20-foot-long anti-Covid table used by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in the Kremlin. Mr. Putin sits hunched and tense at the other end, an autocrat reduced to a supplicant.
Mr. Kim called the Russian military “idiot”. Alluding to the Russian coat of arms with its double-headed eagle and the Ukrainian coat of arms with its three-pointed trident, he said: “A country with a chicken on its coat of arms will never defeat a country with a fork on its coat of arms. »
The mockery is relentless. It is also strategic. “I don’t say these things for fun, they are designed to make our military feel strong,” he said. “If you don’t care about something, that something no longer dominates you.”
Gera Grudev, a curator at a museum in Odessa whose partner, Bogdan Zinchenko, designed a popular Mr Kim T-shirt, said “jokes and openness make Kim a a perfect contrast to the Russian system, where no one sits down with a leader for an informal conversation.
Mr Kim credits his calmness to his father, a Korean-born man who was a basketball coach and then a physical therapist and who was “a bit strict, democratically strict, I would say”. Regular classes in taekwondo, a Korean martial art, instilled discipline. “You have a program, results that you have to achieve, and I think that helps a child grow up in the right way,” Mr. Kim said.
Mr. Kim’s paternal ancestors, like many communist North Koreans, had moved to the Soviet Union to find work, settling first in Kazakhstan. As a young man, Mr Kim’s father moved to Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, to attend university. There he met Mr. Kim’s mother, and the couple later moved to Mykolaiv, where their son was born.
Mr. Kim had a distinguished career in construction, agriculture and catering before Mr. Zelensky appointed him regional administrator in 2020. Convinced of the need to eliminate corruption, overhaul the judicial system and strengthen the rule of law in Ukraine, he accepted the post, never imagining that he would become a soldier.
He now wears an olive green t-shirt that reads “Chernobaivka”, the name of a village where Ukraine has repeatedly inflicted heavy losses on Russia. He shoots from time to time on an electronic cigarette.
“The war will continue until we win,” Kim said. “If, or rather when, we win, Russia will be stopped for a long time and the Putin system will fall. And what is victory? “Return Russia to the borders of February 23, and in time, regain all our territory and our people.”
For Mr. Kim, Ukraine has a great future as a fully European country. His problem is that he has a bad neighbor. The war has made it clear that Ukraine and Russia are not bound by a mystical union, regardless of family and cultural ties, but are dissimilar, now imbued with “different spirits, different goals and different rules,” he said. Russia, he added, wanted this war to mask the failings of its own system.
“You know, the Russian mentality is, ‘We don’t need to be better than our neighbour. It is enough that our neighbor is worse than us,” Mr. Kim said. A prosperous Ukraine would pose a damning question to Mr. Putin: why can’t the Russians have what Ukraine has? To this, the Russian leader would have no answer. Thus, according to Mr. Kim, the cruise missiles were fired at Kyiv, Mykolaiv and countless other Ukrainian cities.
“Democratic and authoritarian countries are different,” Kim said. “In a democratic country, people have laws, aspire to live well and criticize their leader. In North Korea and Russia, everyone lives badly but loves their leader very much.
I asked about his wife and three children. They left; he has not seen them for three months. Did they go abroad? “Yes and no,” says Mr. Kim. He’s not about to give anything away.
“I don’t care about situations or things that I can’t control or influence,” he said. “Only my area of responsibility, and which I work on all the time. I can’t control whether Putin is alive or dead. What I do know is that when he dies, I’ll be happy.