After the fall of Mariupol, Vladimir Putin appears to have his eye on another iconic southern coastal city, with a strong identity and strategic location.
Air strikes on the port city of Odessa have become more frequent over the past three weeks, most often hitting residential buildings, shopping malls, and critical infrastructure rather than military targets. The missiles arrive from naval vessels on the Black Sea and across the sea from the nearby Crimean coast, with the toll including multiple civilian deaths and a growing sense of panic. In Odessa, fears are rising that it could follow Mariupol as Vladimir Putin’s next principal target.
Since the beginning of the war, more than half of the population — about 500,000 people — have left the city, even as others are flowing into Odessa from other war-torn regions in southern Ukraine, where the situation is even worse: people from Nikolayev, Kherson, Crimea, and even from Moldovan Transnistria.
Ukrainian forces resisting in and around the city of Mykolaiv, 80 miles up the coast, have prevented Odessa from being encircled by Russian forces.
But now, after the fall of Mariupol, 380 miles to the east, the port city is increasingly seen as the next target for Putin.
Proud Ukrainian spirit
Not surprisingly, the "pearl by the sea" is unusually quiet ahead of the summer tourist season. In a report from what is still considered the prime resort capital of Ukraine, newspaper RBC writes that only the legendary Privoz market and a few other cafes on Deribasovskaya Street are reminders of what Odessa was like in peaceful times.
Despite everything, Odessa remains a proudly Ukrainian city.
An ancient Greek city with a uniquely modern culture and ethnically diverse composition, Odessa was as important to the Soviet Union as it is to Ukraine — and apparently, to Putin too. There is no shortage of symbolism: The people of Odessa are considered freedom-loving and open-minded. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, when Putin tried to seize major cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, and hold pseudo-referendums, Odessa was a non-starter and Russian troops were always unwelcome there.
According to Sergei Bratchuk, advisor to the head of the Odessa regional military administration, the purpose of the Russian army is to put psychological pressure on the residents and defenders of the region — but also to take revenge for the fact that, despite everything, Odessa remains a proudly Ukrainian city.
“So, unfortunately, we know that this will continue and there is a very high probability of more missile strikes,” Bratchuk says. “This is all revenge from the enemy, to show Odessa. But it means that we are on the right track and that we will endure it all."
Still a moment to get some sun in Odessa
Viacheslav Onyshchenko/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Strategy or symbolism?
The other reason is more strategic than symbolic, and extends beyond Ukraine: Moscow is bombing Odessa in order to intimidate Moldova, whose border lies only 35 miles away.
Moldova has its own internal battle with pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway republic of Transnistria. The opposition leader in Transnistria, Gennady Chorbu, has warned that Putin may call on pro-Russian leadership in the territory to provoke a conflict with Moldova.
Thus for the Kremlin, Odessa is both a potential “next” symbolic victory after Mariupol, and the gateway to a wider, regional war — if that’s what Putin has in mind.
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