Odesa Defends Not Only Itself but All of South Central Europe

Ukraine's last major port has stood defiant throughout the invasion, hampering Russia's primary goal of long-term destabilisation of the entire region

20 July 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Ukraine’s last major coastal city is the key to the southern front. If it were to fall, Moldova would be next.

Southern Ukraine is already partially occupied and is under daily appalling missile strikes. The key to the Russian invasion is Odesa, the largest city in the region and the most important port for the country and food security worldwide. 

Although the invasion has seemed to be stalling in recent weeks, the Odesa region’s significance is not only to the country but to the security of Moldova directly and Romania as well as the whole of the Black Sea region.

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Odesa’s uniqueness is not only in its geography, but it is worth remembering that its history and demographic peculiarities proved its strength and curse. Its strength as its multicultural make-up has infused the city with a distinctly Ukrainian spirit but also gave it an almost spiritual significance to the Kremlin.

The Rationale for Invading the Key Southern Port City

In his self-constructed history lesson speech on 21 February, Vladimir Putin mentioned events in Odesa on 2 May 2014, referring to it as a ‘tragedy’ and threatening to punish those who ‘burned’ Russian-speaking people alive in the Trade of Unions.  

On 9 May, when the world feared a possible nuclear attack on Ukraine, Putin recalled Odesa again. Putin’s obsession with this date is just the tip of the iceberg. After Putin failed to invade Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernigiv, it became even more critical for him to invade as much of southern Ukraine as possible. This landgrab is to save face for his inner audience, threaten the West with his military capabilities, and force Ukraine to broker another unfavourable treaty such as Minsk one and two. 

The Geostrategic Importance of the Port 

The Odesa region is one of the most developed regions of Ukraine, both in terms of industry and agriculture. If Russia were to control Odesa’s ports fully, it would control most of Ukraine’s trade turnover and cut off its access to the Black Sea and international shipping lanes. Furthermore, the Odesa region boasts various strategically significant factories, the most important is the ‘Odesa Port Plant’ as it can directly transport ammonia to the Russian enterprise ‘TogliattiAzot.’ 

From a geopolitical point of view, Odesa is vital for other regional players. A hypothetical invasion of this city will destabilise much of the region and open up neighbouring countries for an attack. Moldova will undoubtedly be next if Odesa falls.

However, it is not just Moldova that will suffer. Even though a NATO country, Romania will become vulnerable in the Black Sea and have Russian troops on its longest border with today’s Moldova and Ukraine. 

Turkey will have to contend almost singlehandedly with an even more extensive Russian naval fleet and presence in the Black Sea. While the entire world will lose one of the largest grain producers, leading to a lack of competition in food prices and the possible continual weaponisation of grain exports. All in all, with the potential occupation of Odesa, Russia gets closer to the EU and NATO. 

As a result, the current invasion will spill over further into the region with global consequences.

The Significance of Odesa’s ‘Soul’

Ideologically, Putin views Odesa as the heart of his ‘Novorossiya’ strategy. He is entrapped by the illusion that Odesa’s residents are waiting for the Russian occupiers to ‘liberate’ them. Before the invasion, there was a strong presence of Russian culture in the city — most Odesans speak the Russian language.

There is also strong sentiment for their Soviet past and the monument to Russian Czarina Catherine the Great. This monument stands as a symbol of the affinity between Odesa and Russia. Even though Russians comprise 29 per cent of Odesa’s population, other ethnic minorities live in peace without any calls to ‘liberate’ them from ‘Neo-Nazis’ as Kremlin propaganda claims. 

In the city, one can find in addition to self-proclaimed Russians: Bulgarians, Jews, Moldovans, Belarusians, Armenians, Poles, Georgians, Azeris, Tatars, Gagauz, Arabs and many others. Not to mention Ukrainians, who comprise 61.6 per cent of the city as of 2001 — when the last official census was held.

These historical and cultural bonds between Odesa and Russia seemed to be strong, but Odesa’s unique multinational mentality, an acute sense of humour and sarcasm have trumped Putin’s hopes. Both in 2014 and now, Odesa’s population stayed firmly with Ukraine.

 The Defence of Snake Island

‘Russians have always come to Odesa. They have always felt only warmth in Odesa. Only sincerity. And now what? Bombs against Odesa? Artillery against Odesa? Missiles against Odesa? It will be a war crime. It will be a historical crime.’ Such was the warning of President Zelenskyy in the early weeks of the war, fearing that Odesa could suffer the fate of Mariupol. 

Despite Putin’s desire for Odesa and its population, the city has learnt the true essence of the so-called ‘Russkiy Mir‘ (Russian World). Like all Ukrainians, Odesans woke up in the early hours of 24 February. The first days of war were both strenuous and confusing as Russian disinformation actively threatened the city with amphibious landings causing panic and chaos. 

When Snake Island was captured, it was thought that Odesa soon would be next. With the loss of momentum after the early advance, Ukraine was able to retake the island, which the Russians said cynically was a ‘token of goodwill’ while bombing the troops who retook it.

Nevertheless, the success of this endeavour was imperative for southern Ukraine so as not to let it turn into a Russian military base from which the city and its region would be easy targets to attack. A foreign force on the island would also block Ukrainian’s only access to international sea routes.

The return of a small but crucial island has also boosted Ukraine’s morale. It could be a foundation for breaking the Russian blockade and transporting food from Odesa to the Romanian port of Constanța. This possibility also makes Odesa still a high-value target for the Russian Armed Forces (RAF).

On 14 April, the most strategically crucial achievement was the sinking of the missile cruiser Moskva which reduced the war capabilities of the Kremlin at sea and hurt Russia’s pride and image. 

Is Odesa Still in Danger?

Despite the invasion, the city continues to live — the iconic Odesa Opera House and some theatres opened their doors to visitors and Odesa Zoo still operates. Cafes and restaurants on Deribasivska street treat their visitors, and the famous Privoz market welcomes customers. Nevertheless, this sedentary life is shaken by the brutal reality of the constant threat of air strikes and the feeling of dread that Odesa can be occupied soon.

The Advisor to the Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Vadim Denisenko and military experts have stressed that the key goal in this war is not Donbas — it is Odesa and complete control over the Black Sea. 

Without total control of the southern seaboard, the RAF’s goal to gain control of the south of Ukraine is severely undermined. However, currently, an invasion of such a large city seems to be impossible. However, Russia has changed its tactics — the Kremlin has changed its focus to launching archaic rockets at the city, which are highly inaccurate and guarantee civilian casualties. 

Currently, the defence of Mykolaiv, east of the city, is holding Russian troops from entering the Odesa region. The Governor of the Mykolaiv region, Vitaliy Kim, pointed out that a land breakthrough of Russian invaders to Odesa is currently out of the question. 

If Mykolaiv and Voznesensk were to fall, Odesa would be next. What is also noteworthy is that the east is not the only possible direction of attack, Russian-backed Transnistria to Odesa’s west is also a constant threat to the city. Also, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is always in the waters to the south.

However, the military capabilities of the Russian Black Sea fleet are currently limited by Ukrainian step-by-step strategic victories in the direction of the Southern Buh. Russian land forces are mainly focused on holding the Kherson region and are currently stuck there and may face a Ukrainian counter-offensive soon. 

Odesa’s Chapter Is Not Yet Closed

It is possible that despite the odds being against a successful invasion, the RAF will still attempt one. This possibility stems from the fact that it would be Putin’s last chance to save his face with the utter strategic failure this entire invasion proved to be. 

Until Ukraine’s complete victory, no place in Ukraine is safe. The pendulum of war is swinging from one side to the other. Odesa’s chapter seems not over with Putin’s war plans. The critical city in southern Ukraine is on the verge of being the next target of Russian atrocities. If Russia fully achieves its goals in eastern Ukraine, its forces can regroup and hit the south with renewed vigour. 

By any means necessary, southern forces, together with Odesa’s residents, are prepared for any scenario and will fight until the end to not lose hold of their native city. 

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship. Read more about the project here and consider contributing here.

Photo: “Saturday, March 12 – Ukraine Under Attac” (CC BY 2.0) by manhhai

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

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