The war in Ukraine has burned the hottest in the country’s south since the first day of the Russian invasion.
Now, with Russian troops barely 100 km away from the crucial Black Sea port of Odesa, Ukraine’s third-largest city is preparing for its own version of the brutal urban combat that has engulfed Kyiv, Kharkiv and elsewhere.
The city’s historic old quarter has now become a fortress, with tank traps and sandbagged positions closing off streets and providing a maze of defences against any would-be assailant.
On a sunny day in mid-March – though the weather was still biting cold, with a freezing wind coming off the sea – codenamed soldiers control access to key avenues. The guards, both enlisted members of Ukraine’s armed forces and new volunteers in the recently established Territorial Defence, enforce a strict curfew at 7pm – anyone caught outside in a vehicle without the requisite papers after this time is simply shot, a measure adopted following incursions from Russian saboteurs.
The city is predictably quiet – around 150,000 of its 1mn inhabitants have fled, while most shops are closed. Some of those that remain open do so in a very different form than their normal one. One of these is the Odesa Food Market, a hall of chic restaurant stalls that now hosts one of the city’s main collection points.
Humanitarian volunteers from across the city fill the interior. One of these, Inga Kordynovska, a lawyer-turned-air co-ordinator, now helps run these crucial logistics of Odesa’s defence.
“There are thousands of people enrolled in Territorial Defence [forces] here,” Kordynovska says. “They are a new formation that was only rolled out shortly before the war started, so we provide food and supplies to them first,” she says.
The demand from the public to be involved in the city’s preparations has been almost too much to handle.
“Every day I get 50 calls from people who want to help,” says Kordynovska. “There’s more help than there is work to do. Everyone says, ‘I want to do something, I can’t just watch how this fucking crazy Putin ruins my country,” she says.
Sure of victory
Odesa’s distance from the initial frontlines has given it the time necessary to prepare: Although an obvious Russian target, Moscow’s forces have to cover 250 km to reach it from occupied Crimea.
“Fortunately for us, Kyiv, Kharkiv, these were the first targets, so they bought us time to prepare,” says Kordynovska. “Kyiv, they didn’t have this time. We also have bomb attacks every day, but as I know from our army, we have some of the best anti-air defences [in the country] in this city,” she adds.
It doesn’t take long to confirm her words. Later that afternoon, a short burst of anti-air cannons rings throughout Odessa, firing upon a Russian cruise missile fired from a warship in the Black Sea towards targets deeper in Ukraine.
Just as in nearby Mykolaiv – currently shielding Odesa as it faces the present Russian thrust westwards – unusually poor weather conditions have delayed a potential Russian assault.
“We normally have very warm weather here in March, around 15 degrees,” says Kordynovska. “But now it’s so cold and stormy, they can’t attack the city [from the sea]. So every morning we pray: please, weather, please be disgusting!” she laughs.
The volunteers remain sure of victory.
“To just sit and hide helps no one,” says Ivan Belogroda, a 30-year old bar manager. “[My wife and I] couldn’t wait and do nothing. We tried to sign up for the Territorial Defence, but they already had too many applicants. The minimum we could do is volunteer here, to support our guys on the front,” he says.
The city’s past, specifically its defence against Nazi Germany in 1941, gives him confidence.
“Odesa is a [Soviet] Hero City, and it will always be,” says Belogroda. “The city will never be given over to them. Even if they manage to enter, I am sure there will be a guerilla war [against them]. The people will not accept the Russians here, ever,” he says.
Ready to fight
Elsewhere in the city, volunteer fighters are busy with their own preparations and deployments.
The Committee for Public Security is one such group. Their headquarters, on the edge of central Odesa, is awash with the flags of various anti-Russian armed groups: Stepan Bandera’s WWII-era Ukrainian Provisional Army, the 25th Dnipro Paratrooper Brigade, and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, among others. Two dozen volunteers and support staff move about the building, stocking provisions and brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles.
One of them tells of a saboteur his team captured on the city’s streets a week prior.
“I went outside to look at some suspicious characters,” says Maxim Ivanin, 36, a member of the group since its formation in 2014. “Someone saw them and told me ‘they look suspicious, they are wandering around there’. I go outside wearing my armband and uniform. He turns around and right away he raises his hands up, like this. I realise that the fact that he’s doing this means something’s off,” Ivanin says.
“So we put him on a bench and start interrogating him. Right away, he takes a wallet out of his pocket and his first words are ‘it’s not my wallet’. And there you’ve got all kinds of card numbers, cards of the Russian Orthodox Church, those propagandists, so he had the full package. Eventually, he cracked and admitted that he was [working for Russia] for money. The SBU [Ukrainian intelligence service] came and took him away,” Ivanin says.
The group has suffered casualties, both past and present. Portraits line one wall of the office, showing fighters who fell in battle in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. There is one more recent death as well: 20-year old Anton Kompaniets, killed in fighting in Mykolaiv just that day.
More Odesa locals are joining the committee, and other groups like it, every day.
Ivanin is not surprised. “99 percent [of Ukrainians] are all as one now: ready to fight,” he says.
22-year old Roman is one of those new recruits.
“I thought it would be good to help defend the city,” says Roman, who studies computer science in his normal life. “I only came last week. I’ve never done anything with the military before,” he admits.
Feelings towards the invaders are the same, regardless of Ukraine’s linguistic divide.
“I’m Russian-speaking, I speak Russian all my life,” says Ivanin. “I know Ukrainian too, but generally I always preferred Russian. But I can’t tolerate [Russians] now. There will be no peace. Only victory,” he says.
That sentiment is shared by many in Odesa. Kordynovska, the aid co-ordinator, wishes the world saw it their way.
“We are shocked at the passive position of [other countries],” she said. “I read one post today, where a guy says, ‘if I understand correctly, bin Laden destroyed two buildings and he is called an international terrorist. Now one crazy fucking guy destroys thousands of buildings, we will still invite him to summits, to negotiations, everything,’” Kordynovska said.
In her view, if the Russian war machine is not stopped here, it will only continue.
“Now a lot of our refugees go to Moldova,” Kordynovska says. “And now Moldova understands, if Ukrainians can’t stop Putin, he will come to Moldova too, then to Romania, to Poland. It’s not our war, it’s the world’s war,” she says.
While Odesa braces for the worst, Kordynovska wonders how much worse things will get.
“[Putin] destroys whole countries,” she says. “How many people should die? How many people should be killed before it’s enough?”
A group from the Committee of Public Safety on manoeuvres in 2015. Photo: bne IntelliNews