The Kremlin is striking civilian targets in cities like Mykolaiv where many speak Russian

Mykolaiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - The cracked kitchen clock still showed the moment the first Russian missile vaporised the courtyard of a Soviet-era high-rise facing Ukraine’s southern front.

The second S-300 blew in a minute later at 1:44 am. Gennadiy Gerulo had already fallen out of bed by that point and realised that much of his old way of life was gone.

The pudgy engineer stared out his shattered kitchen window a few hours later and saw the strikes against his riverside port town of Mykolaiv as a sign that victory was nigh.

“He is like a jealous lover,” the 50-year-old said of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He is saying that if he can’t have Ukraine, no one can.”

Most Russian missiles hit residential buildings in the middle of the night

Southern Ukrainian cities such as Mykolaiv will play a crucial role in the next stage of the gruelling war Putin began exactly eight months ago.

A blistering Ukrainian counteroffensive that forced the Russians out of lands they seized in the more industrial north has reached the agricultural south.

And cities such as Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rig about three hours’ drive to the northeast provide Ukrainians with two staging grounds from which to launch their next attack.

- ‘Wounded animal’ -

The latest wave of missiles injured four people and redoubled Svetlana Tishevska’s conviction that Ukraine was on the right track.

Kremlin-installed leaders are already evacuating the nearby city of Kherson -– the only regional capital the Russians managed to control in the entire war.

A Ukrainian victory there would cut off the land bridge the Kremlin established from Russia to the Crimea peninsula it grabbed in 2014.

Kremlin-installed leaders are evacuating Kherson, the capital of a region Russia claims as its own

It would also give back important access to the Sea of Azov and leave Putin with little to show from a campaign that has turned him into an international pariah.

Tishevska expressed almost the exact same thoughts as Gerulo while clearing rubble from her stairwell a few floors further down.

“He is like a wounded animal,” she said of Putin.

“He is destroying himself and wants to take down others with him.”

The supporting wall of Tishevska’s apartment tower had cracked and the facade of a smaller building on the opposite side of the courtyard had partially collapsed.

Few residents expected to live in either building again.

“I understand that victory is drawing near,” the 50-year-old said amid the devastation.

- Trail of destruction -

The trail of destruction created by Putin’s retreating forces is engendering hostility toward Moscow in places where many prefer to speak Russian and have family on the opposite side of the frontier.

Russian-speaking Gerulo said he felt “nothing but hatred, pure hatred for these people who call themselves our brothers”.

The overwhelming majority of the attacks strike Mykolaiv and surrounding cities after midnight or when people wake and head out for the first time.

The trail of destruction created by Russia's retreating forces is engendering hostility toward Moscow

The timing puzzles many. Some think Russia may be trying to demoralise Ukrainians by depriving them of sleep.

“The Russians want to wear us down and spark civil unrest. They want us to force our government to give up,” Gerulo said.

“They know no other way.”

Mykolaiv became Putin’s target in the first weeks of the invasion.

The Russians were making sweeping gains and taking aim at the neighbouring Black Sea port of Odessa – a cultural capital that Putin mentioned when he first went to war.

Mykolaiv is suffering for a second time as Putin’s troops beat their retreat.

- Bravado and fear -

Academic and part-time charity worker Lyudmila Falko sounded almost cheerful as she searched the remains of her daughter’s ruined flat.

“These suicide drones and missiles, these are his last acts,” the slight 60-year-old said with a firm nod.

'Children are dying, old people are dying because (Putin) is in the throes of agony,' one Mykolaiv resident said

“Children are dying, old people are dying because he is in the throes of agony.”

But this bravado – both passionate and clearly shared by many – is tinged with a nagging fear that bubbles up without warning in the middle of conversations.

“I have been afraid from the very first day of war,” Gerulo said while still staring out his kitchen window.

“To be honest, I still do not fully grasp what is going on.”