ODESA, Ukraine (AP) — The Black Sea port of Odessa is exploiting its beaches and racing to defend its cultural heritage against a feared Mariupol-like fate amid growing concern that the strategic city could be next as Russia is trying to strip Ukraine of its coastline.
The multicultural gem, dear to Ukrainian and even Russian hearts, would be a huge strategic win for Russia. It is the country’s largest port, crucial for grain and other exports, and the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy.
The bombardment from the sea last weekend has raised fears that the city is in the crosshairs of Russia.
Locals say Russian President Vladimir Putin would be mad to take Odessa with the heavy-handed approach that has left other Ukrainian cities in ruins. Once a golden powerhouse of the Russian Empire, Odessa features one of Europe’s finest opera houses and the famous Potemkin Steps between the city and the sea, featured in Soviet filmmaker Sergei’s silent film masterpiece Eisenstein in 1925, “The battleship Potemkin”.
But after a grueling month of war, people say they can’t predict anything anymore.
“The only thing we are really afraid of is that the other side has no principles,” said Valerii Novak, a local businessman. He never considered himself a Ukrainian patriot, but when Russia invaded, something “just clicked” inside him. He refused to leave Odessa and joined thousands in basic firearm training.
Now he and other Odessa residents are watching Russian warships closing in, out of provocation. Western officials call the Russian ships a mix of surface combatants and types used to land naval infantry.
Seizing Odessa and the strip of land further west would also allow Moscow to build a land corridor to neighboring Moldova’s breakaway Trans-Dniester region which hosts a Russian military base.
A senior US defense official said last week that the United States had not seen any indications of ships in the Black Sea firing on Odessa as they did last weekend. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject.
“It’s hard to know what that indicates,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said of the bombing last weekend. “Is this the prelude to an assault on Odessa? Is this a diversionary tactic to somehow hold back and fix Ukrainian troops in the south so that they cannot come to the aid of their comrades in Mariupol or Kyiv? »
Uncertainty adds to anxiety in Odessa, where initial panic has been followed by a cautious calm.
Some residents are mobilizing to strengthen the defenses of the city. On an unmined beach, Captain Sivak Vitaliy joined others in preparing sandbags for the barricades.
“We will win,” he said, no matter how horrific the Russian invasion has become in cities like Maruipol or Kharkiv.
Ukrainian officials say Russia appears to lack the strength to quickly launch an offensive on Odessa as its marine units are busy in the east besieging Mariupol, where they have suffered heavy casualties.
Closer to Odessa on the Black Sea coast, Russian troops took Kherson and attempted to bypass Mykolaiv, an important port halfway between Odessa and Russian-annexed Crimea, but fierce Ukrainian resistance thwarted these attempts.
“Is our city next or not?” asked Hanna Shelest, an Odessa-based security analyst.
She said Russia needed Odessa to surrender, not fight, to avoid the “sentimental blow” that any destruction of the city’s cultural heritage would give nostalgic Russians. Odessa was one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Russian Empire, with a large Jewish population as well as Greeks, Italians and others drawn to the bustling port.
Today, the city’s Italian Baroque Opera House, rebuilt in the 1880s, is one of the best-defended buildings in Ukraine. Major monuments elsewhere in Odessa are covered in sandbags. The contents of the Museum of Fine Arts, including Orthodox religious icons, have been moved to underground storage. Checkpoints are heavy throughout the historic city center.
Russian forces‘ plans to take Odessa were ruined by Ukrainian resistance to Mykolaiv, a crucial land supply route, Shelest said. Without holding Mykolaiv, a Russian landing operation in Odessa from the sea would be suicidal.
“If the situation continues like this, there is only a chance for a big attack if Putin goes completely mad,” she said. “From all considerations, he shouldn’t.”
Nevertheless, Shelest, like other residents of Odessa, gathered her documents in case she had to flee.
The mayor estimated that 10% of the city’s population of around 1 million disappeared.
At Central Station, the iconic melody “At the Black Sea” played. The sound of the orchestra was reminiscent of the Soviet era of the 1950s as a man placed his hand against the cold glass of a moving train in farewell.
“It took part of my heart out of my chest sending them back,” said another resident who only gave her first name, Ludmila. “I don’t know how it will be, what it will be.”
The Russian invasion has created a wave of pro-Ukrainian sentiment in a city whose population has shown significant pro-Russian sentiment in the recent past. Shelest and other residents noted a survey published this month in which more than 90% of Odessa residents said they wanted to remain part of Ukraine.
“Nobody wants to be part of Russia anymore,” said Natalia Vlasenko, a local tour guide. She called any destruction of Odessa “my personal tragedy” and described a life of walking the streets of her great-grandparents and not wanting to leave.
The city may not be Paris or Rome, she says, but for Ukraine “it’s a gem”.