Ukraine War: In Odessa, Residents Believe They're Putin's Next Target

Moscow hoped that Ukraine's third-largest city, with its large Russian-speaking population, would rise up against Kyiv. So far, the usual pro-Kremlin voices have gone silent, while air raid sirens go off every night

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A checkpoint on the way to Odessa, in Ukraine.
A checkpoint on the way to Odessa, in Ukraine.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

ODESSA — The Russian invasion has yet to reach Ukraine’s third-largest city. But in Odessa, they are convinced it is just a matter of time. Very soon the weather will improve and landing-craft will arrive on the beaches, filled with Russian marines.

Nearly every night air raid sirens are heard in the city, and though so far there has been only one reliable report of a missile strike on a village near Odessa, in the city there are constant rumors that the Russians already made one landing attempt and were repulsed.

In peacetime, Odessa is just an hour’s drive from the border with Moldova and over the past three weeks there has been a steady stream of refugees from Ukraine. Tatyana Dnyeperovska, a retired nurse, who has lived all her 71 years of life in Odessa, finally left this weekend along with her daughter Yevgenya and granddaughter Gabriella, leaving her son-in-law in the city. Men of military age are forbidden from leaving Ukraine.

“I would have stayed,” she says at a refugee center in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. “But my granddaughter was constantly crying because of the sirens.” Despite being of Jewish ancestry and eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, she has no plans to join the thousands now immigrating to Israel. To her, Odessa remains her only home and she intends to return. Though she has no idea when.

The political leadership, both at the local and national levels are continuously warning of an imminent Russian attack on Odessa. Nine days ago, President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukrainian intelligence had information that the battle for Odessa would begin at any moment with salvoes of Russian rockets on the city. Over the past weekend, Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov warned that the Russians were about to encircle Odessa from all directions on land and sea. But so far, the Russians haven’t shown themselves.

The politicians’ warnings are partly being made to boost the fighting spirit of the Russian-speaking Odessans who are not particularly known for their pro-Ukrainian patriotism. “Despite the order that men remain in Ukraine, most young men I know are not planning to join up and fight,” says Lita Kovaliova, a dentistry student at a medical college in Odessa who is also sheltering across the border in Moldova. “Many have also fled to Romania through Moldova, in some cases paying bribes to cross the border. Others are just hiding. It’s not that anyone now is pro-Russia, certainly with the way Russia looks now, but many of them simply don’t feel connected enough to Ukraine either to want to die for it.”

On Monday evening, a series of explosions was heard over Odessa and flashes were seen in the sky. It was most likely air defense missiles being launched, but there were no reports of any Russian rockets hitting the Odessa area.

Ukrainian refugees who escaped from the Odessa region at a makeshift aid center in MoldovaCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

One of the largest question marks still looming over the Russian war plans is why, nearly three weeks into the invasion, Russia has not attacked Odessa. It’s not only the third-largest city, with a million residents, but also Ukraine’s major commercial port and the country’s main entrance to the world, especially with the airspace closed due to the war. Odessa is also a main logistic hub right now for Ukraine’s war effort.

Odessa would be a strategic prize for the Russians, as it remains the biggest obstacle to their full control of the Black Sea coast, all the way from the annexed Crimean Peninsula in the east to the separatist enclave of Transnistria in the west. But more than anything, Odessa is a city with centuries of Russian history and culture.

One of the possible reasons is that this is one city the Russians would prefer to take without causing physical damage to either port and transport facilities, which could be then used to land more troops and supplies for the invasion, or damage to cultural monuments and buildings. There could of course be a much more prosaic reason: that Russia simply doesn’t have enough forces available right now to attack Odessa, with its units pinned down in fighting on other fronts, especially around Mykolaiv up the coast, which has continued to hold out since the invasion began.

It is also very possible that sufficient forces were not allocated to capturing Odessa in the initial Russian war plans because President Vladimir Putin assumed that the city, with its overwhelming majority of Russian speakers, would rise up against the government in Kyiv on its own and reclaim Odessa for Mother Russia. That hasn’t happened and there’s no sign yet that it will. However, there are persistent rumors in the city that local politicians are in contact with Moscow and that this could be another reason the bombs have yet to fall on Odessa.

Partly in concern for possible cooperation between the local residents and Russia, the Ukrainian military has deployed more of its units to the sector, relying here less on territorial units of volunteers.

Tatyana Dnyeperovska. 'I would have stayed. But my granddaughter was constantly crying because of the sirens.'

“I can’t say that the resistance to the Russians of the locals will be as fierce as in other parts of Ukraine. After all,this is a much more Russian city, historically and culturally,” says Vladislav Davidzon, editor of a literary magazine in Odessa. “But the fact that the usual pro-Russian voices in Odessa have now all gone silent and there is no sign of any support for Putin, shows that even those who in principle would be happy for Odessa to be part of Russia now deeply hate Putin, both for this war on Ukraine and for what he is doing to Russia, as well.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN

ICYMI

Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

A Palestinian flag is taken down from a building by Israeli authorities after being put up by an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, in Ramat Gan, Israel earlier this month

Israel-Palestine Confederation: A Response to Eric Yoffie