August 2, 2022

All Eyes on Odesa

Scanpix / EPA
Scanpix / EPA
The Odesa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, one of the city's symbols behind a heavy barricade with a placard reading 'Odesa is Ukraine!', in south Ukrainian city of Odesa, 21 March 2022.
The Odesa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, one of the city's symbols behind a heavy barricade with a placard reading 'Odesa is Ukraine!', in south Ukrainian city of Odesa, 21 March 2022.

On 24 February, Odesa woke up from the sounds of cruise missiles exploding in the sky. It was targeted, just as any other major Ukrainian city from east to west. Since then, Odesa sustained several deadly attacks, but despite missiles flying over the roofs daily, the city escaped the level of destruction others have witnessed.

Why Odesa Endures

There are objective reasons to explain Odesa’s seeming luck. First, the location. The US analysis prior to the invasion suggested that the Russian military doctrine planned for amphibious forces to disembark in a safe location only to supplement its ground forces’ operation. Ukraine’s western Black Sea shore is largely formed by stiff cliffs not suitable for a smooth landing, with only a few exceptions to the far ends of the city. The shoreline, however, was promptly mined, and the city was fortified. According to the regional military administration, the coastal defence system would not allow the enemy troops to approach.

Odesa, indeed, has not been captured — but not for the lack of trying. On 25 February, the Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security reported that the 28th Mechanized Brigade, known as the Winter Knights, thwarted one such attempt and killed over two dozen Russian paratroopers. Ukraine’s officials added that the naval infantry, initially tasked with “storming” Odesa, had to be relocated to other regions, where the invaders were suffering major losses. The Russian fleet, nevertheless, continued manoeuvres in the Black Sea, including assault ships and support vessels, as well as sabotage and reconnaissance units, beaching in the area. The risk of missile strikes from the occupied Crimea and even the far Caspian Sea remained high.

Breaching the city’s coastal defence alone will not suffice, Oleksandr Musiyenko, the head of the Centre for Military Legal Studies in Kyiv, says. Thus, much has always depended on the Russian offensive in the east. “They cannot take Odesa until they have taken Mykolaiv,” Major General Viktor Yahun, former deputy chairman of the Security Service, argues. The primary focus is on preventing the enemy from crossing the Southern Bug, after which it is roughly an hour’s drive to Odesa through flat terrain.

Fewer than 60 kilometres to the northwest of Odesa lies another danger zone — a frozen conflict in Russia-occupied Moldova’s region of Transnistria. Seizing Odesa would allow the Kremlin to link the Crimean Peninsula and the left bank of the Dniester River, thus accessing its garrison of troops and weapons left there since the 1992 war. If successful, it would also make Ukraine landlocked. The General Staff warned that the enemy may try to stage a provocation to accuse the neighbouring country of aggression. And the threat of Russia embarking on new special military operation against another sovereign state persists to this day, experts have cautioned.

Second, raising the ante, with Harpoon and Neptune missiles in particular, secured Odesa’s coast and upset Russia’s ability to project force in the northern Black Sea. In the meantime, “material and technical assistance from partner countries” allowed Ukraine to sink the flagship Moskva missile cruiser. It “significantly reduced the threat” of the sea and airborne landing, Ukraine’s Armed Forces commander-in-chief said. Russia, on the other hand, suffered a major blow to its maritime domination when Turkey closed the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits to navies.

Since Russians were chased away from the Snake Island in a similar “gesture of good will”, opening a second southern front and capturing Odesa to recreate Novorossiya have become unattainable goals for the time being. So, the Kremlin war room resorted to terror tactics. On the eve of the Orthodox Easter, Russia launched multiple cruise missiles that hit two apartment buildings and killed eight civilians, with a three-month-old baby among them — an attack that Ukraine’s Foreign Minister called an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

Absent any tangible military gains, local authorities had to fight off the fake news from Russia – such as a claim that the Hadzhibey Dam was mined. In another instance, Odesa’s governor had to deny that the Ukrainian military was setting up strongpoints in hospitals and schools. This, he said, was intended to justify a future attack on civilian infrastructure. Hybrid measures have been applied to destabilize the city from within. In one such instance, the State Security Service arrested Russian agents who penetrated the territorial defence force for sabotage and espionage purposes.

Crimea 2.0

President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Odesa was “another southern city of Ukraine that Russia may try to destroy, as well as Mariupol.” It was only safe, he said, because “the Armed Forces of Ukraine are deterring Russian attacks and repelling barbaric Russian troops from their direction of attack on Odesa long-agreed by Russian leadership.” Operational awareness, however, has not been the only impediment to a major onslaught, with cultural and pseudo-historical factors at play.

The ideological masterminds brainwashed themselves to project the whole of Ukraine would be conquered in a three-day march of liberation. If so, Odesa would be a special venue for such a glorious military parade: high-level officials against the backdrop of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Potemkin Stairs, and the monument to Alexander Pushkin. In this paradigm, Odesa’s cultural heritage — inconveniently cramped in the strategic port area – should be handled with utmost care to prevent any major destruction. Propaganda would later need this iconic scenery, all too familiar to the domestic audience, to sell the narrative. An average Russian, however, already believes Odesa has always belonged to them. Therefore, carpet-bombing it may not be received with as much perverse gloating and public delight as wiping a presumed Nazi stronghold of Lviv or another no-name village would.

Moreover, Odesa would later make a perfect capital of Novorossiya (“New Russia”) — a post-term baby of the Kremlin’s historical revisionism. In this perverse universe of national resentment, Novorossiya must finally do justice to the alleged old Russian lands illegally occupied by Ukraine and form a confederation of all the self-proclaimed republics in the southeast.

The Grain of Salt

Odesa’s luck may run out soon. To exercise control and make territorial advances, Russia would need the “3 B’s”: blockade, bombardment, and boots. So far, it has been most successful with the first element.

While the UN and Turkey applauded themselves for mediating a deal with Russia to release 20 million tons worth of grain exports, Ukraine remained wary. Unblocking the ports to foreign commercial ships also makes the city vulnerable to a Russian attack on the coast. And Russia is infamous for violating every deal it enters. Ukraine was, again, proven right when, less than 24 hours after the Black Sea Initiative had been signed, Russia hit the port infrastructure with a Kalibr missile and claimed it was within a full right to do so.

The Kremlin publicly admitted it was least interested in preventing the food crisis. Unblocking the port area is simply an invitation to attack. Bombs and boots have been missing for now. However, experts have speculated that Russia hopes to make new territorial advances in the south. Intensified air raids on the broader Odesa region and missile strikes on the city of Mykolaiv, as well as troop movements in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, testify to the validity of such prognosis. Overstretching Ukraine’s defences by forcing it to respond to an attempt to storm the Black Sea shore fits into this equation, while accusing the Ukrainian Armed Forces of a provocation is a nice pretext to trigger a renewed offensive.

The weather conditions reportedly prevented the Russians from carrying out assault landing or operating UAVs in the past. With the colder autumn months approaching, the window of opportunity for a major offensive is closing. And the running list of war crimes may have made the Russian strategists less risk averse to obliterate another European city than they were in the first months of the invasion.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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