MYKOLAIV, Ukraine – The quick, thud of outgoing Ukrainian artillery echoes through the heavily fortified City Hall building here in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, a sign of the closeness of Russian forces in their march towards west along the Black Sea coast.

The city’s mayor, Oleksandr Senkevich, dressed in army green with a pistol in his pocket, barely notices him marking Russian positions on a map. With him is Dmytro Falko, the secretary of the city council, dressed in a light body armor and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle in a tennis racket holster on his back.

The Russians are coming from the north, east and south, he said. The same forces a few days earlier had captured the town of Kherson, which lies about 40 miles east of Mykolaiv.

By mid-afternoon, he said, some Russian forces had pushed into outlying areas of the city – killing a local school principal, among others – although Ukrainian soldiers held them at bay to the moment.

After a battle on Friday evening, Ukrainian forces recaptured Mykolaiv airport, which had previously been captured by Russian troops, and raised the Ukrainian flag there, according to the Ukrainian military, which released a video of the flag and cheering troops on Twitter.

“The enemy surrounds us,” Mr. Senkevich said. “Today they are gathering troops and I think they want to attack us as soon as possible.”

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Russian forces in northern Ukraine have bogged down and are largely immobile near the capital, Kyiv, and the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. But the troops in southern Ukraine are on the move.

When Russian President Vladimir V. Putin issued the order to invade last week, Russian forces left the Crimean peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014 and turned into a huge military garrison. From there they spread east, where they defeated the city of Melitopol, and converged on Mariupol, which, despite a nearly week-long siege, remained under the control of Ukrainian forces.

To the west, Russian troops pushed into the port city of Kherson, where the Russian commander informed the mayor, Ihor Kolykhaev, that he planned to establish a military administration.

On Friday, Kolykhaev said, it emerged that Ukrainian forces positioned outside the city were blocking aid trucks despite an agreement on Thursday to open a humanitarian corridor, which he attributed to poor communication. between troops in the field and their commanders.

In the meantime, he said, the Russian troops who now occupy the city – “the nice liberators”, he said sarcastically – were using the delay for their own propaganda message, publicly promising to deliver a assistance.

“First they create a critical situation, then they heroically save us in order to show the camera how everyone is thanking the ‘benefactors,'” Mr Kolykhaev said in a text message. “I give you my word, I do what I can, but I don’t know how long I can last.”

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

While the ultimate goal of Russian troops in the southern theater is unknown, the likely goal is to take Odessa, a large city of one million people on the Black Sea. There, residents and officials are preparing day and night for an attack, building barricades of sandbags and old steel tramlines, while scanning the horizon for Russian warships approaching by sea.

But to reach Odessa by the easiest route, Russian forces will have to cross Mykolaiv and cross the single drawbridge that spans the Buh River. For safety reasons, the city ordered that the bridge remain in the raised position for most of the day, giving residents only about an hour to evacuate. On Friday, a line of cars stretched deep into the city, some of which had signs reading “children” taped to their windshields.

At the entrance to the bridge, Ukrainian troops, equipped with bulletproof vests and armed with automatic weapons, stood guard. In army green boxes next to hastily erected cinder block and sandbag bunkers were shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles supplied by Britain.

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

If these fail to stop the Russian advance, Senkevich said, the troops have orders to blow up the bridge.

“For now, it’s not as scary as in Kharkiv or other cities,” said a woman named Nadezha, as she prepared to cross the bridge on foot. “Our guys are protecting us well and all our hope is in them,” she said, adding that her son was also a soldier.

In the early days of the fighting, a meteoric advance of Russian troops pushed into Mykolaiv but was repelled by Ukrainian forces in a fierce exchange of fire. Now the streets are largely empty except for Ukrainian troops and a few lone pensioners walking with shopping bags. Most of the city’s approximately 500,000 residents appear to have fled.

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Across the Buh River is a neighborhood of well-appointed houses whose residents prepare to defend their property. One, who invited a reporter for tea on the condition that only his first name, Vadim, be published, showed gruesome videos friends had sent him of fights in the city. He said Russian soldiers in the area appeared to be going in groups when they came under fire. The Times could not independently verify its claim, but observers elsewhere in the country have reported similar scenes.

“People are still not completely angry,” said Vadim, who had a shotgun on his table and said he was ready to defend his property if necessary. “But if they are pushed to the limit, no one will take any more prisoners. We’re just going to shoot them.

Mr. Senkevich, the mayor, said he and his team were also ready to fight, if and when Russian forces passed. In addition to the pistol in his pocket, several automatic rifles lay in his office.

The only other things City defenders needed, Mr Senkevich said, were body armor and helmets.

“That’s the only plan, to fight until the end,” he said. “The captain leaves the ship last.”

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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