Venerable Odessa, Ukraine exploits Black Sea beaches for feared Russian attack

Opera theater

Residents of Odessa, a critical port and Ukraine’s third-largest city with around 1 million people, aren’t wondering whether Russia plans to launch an assault here. They are sure of it. Of the cities in southern Ukraine, Odessa is the most economically strategic, making it a sure target for Russian forces that have besieged other ports to the east.

An attack on Odessa could come from warships. It could come from the east, where Russian forces already control the port of Kherson and have advanced north to Mykolaiv. He could even come from the west, which was considered the preferred escape route to the Moldovan border. Russian forces are stationed in the separatist enclave of Transnistria along a strip of the border with Moldova and Ukraine.

Over the past two days, Russian warships have been spotted near the beaches of Chernomorsk and Zatoka in Odessa, where an amphibious landing is highly likely due to favorable geographical conditions, said Alexander Velmozhko, press secretary of the forces. local territorial defence.

So Odessa, known in Ukraine for the unique sense of humor of its inhabitants, is preparing for the worst.

“Now is not the time to joke,” said Eduard Shevchenko, who works with the voluntary organization Park Kultury which looks after pensioners and brought Olga Lyashenko, 86, non-perishable food on Friday afternoon. .

Lyashenko uses a walker, so evacuating was a failure, she said. The underground basement of his building, which was used to store garbage, was cleared to make it a bomb shelter. But her neighbour, also in her 80s, is unimpressed. “It’s disgusting,” commented the neighbor.

When the air raid sirens went off, neither woman moved from the ninth-floor apartment for shelter.

“I grew up in the war,” said Lyashenko, who was born in 1936 and remembers the Romanian occupation of the city during World War II. Odessa’s iconic opera and ballet theater was then nearly bombed, she said. The building dates back to 1887, when this city was a showcase of Imperial Russia. It is still standing, located a few blocks from the beach, and is now surrounded by sandbags and anti-tank barricades.

In Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, a predominantly Russian-speaking city like Odessa, the opera house was one of the buildings damaged by missile fire on the city’s downtown.

“I cry all the time,” said Odessa resident Kristina Botushan. “I have friends in the towns that were attacked. What is going on in them is hell.

The Ukrainian coastline has been a particular point of attention for the Russian army.

Heavy fighting continues in Mariupol, the main Sea of ​​Azov port city near Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The nearby port of Berdyansk is now in Russian hands.

Russian forces from the Crimean Peninsula advanced northeast to Melitopol and also northwest to Kherson, a city of about 300,000 about 90 miles from Odessa.

While Ukraine has anti-ship missiles to defend the shoreline, the country’s naval fleet is seen as a particular weak point in its defence. It lost most of its ships when Russia seized a key base in 2014. The ships it currently has no longer have missiles. The navy has no modern frigates.

The pride of his fleet, the flagship Hetman Sahaidachny, was under repair at Mykolaiv, a port towards which Russian forces are advancing. The ship’s commander gave the order to sink it so that it “won’t be captured by the enemy”, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote on Facebook.

“It’s hard to imagine a tougher decision for a brave warrior and the whole team,” Reznikov said. “But we are going to build a new, modern and powerful fleet. The main thing now is to resist.

Odessa spent days preparing to do just that.

The city’s 7 p.m. curfew is strict. Its downtown streets, known for their stunning and delicate architecture, are now lined with stone barriers and anti-tank “hedgehogs” made from metal bars. Throughout the city, the now famous response from neighboring Snake Island border guards – “Russian warship, fuck you” – is displayed on billboards throughout the city.

“The ‘Glory to Ukraine’ greeting has become the most common in Ukraine,” said Alexander Slavskiy, who 10 days ago headed a government fund but is now a soldier in the region’s Territorial Defense. “Before that, it was not like that. The city is mobilizing. Everyone who wanted to leave evacuated, but so many people stayed.

As distant shelling could be heard from a small park in downtown Odessa, a group of men continued their usual games of chess and dominoes at tables outside. They will not abandon their home, they said. But they are afraid of what they are now sure that they are heading towards this city.

“Chess is a peaceful game that forces you to think and be creative,” said Vladislav Vasytinski-Kazimir, 59, born in Odessa. “It would be better if the military sat at a chess table and figured things out instead of looking through a scope or firing missiles.”