Odessa: The Forbidden Dream Of Russia

Ugo Poletti

Ever since the unprovoked invasion of Russia in Ukraine, the  port city of Odessa has remained relatively unharmed. Yet, argues Ugo Poletti, editor in chief of the Odessa Journal, this city is the final target for Russia to achieve a clear military and political victory. In this blog, Poletti sets out the three main reasons why Odessa is such a wanted target, and he explains why Russia benefits from refraining from attacks on the city. Follow The Odessa Journal for the latest English-language news from Odessa.

Odessa is the maritime capital of Ukraine. Founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great, it used to be the main port for the Russian Empire, as I wrote in an earlier blog on this website. At the beginning of the war, last February, Kiev was the main goal of the Russians. In order to install a new government and to extinguish Ukrainian resistance, control of the capital was crucial. The political capital was to be occupied temporarily to install a Moscow-friendly government, while permanent control of Odessa was Moscow's true aspiration, cutting off Ukraine from the Black Sea. There are three main objectives for Odessa being at the core of Russia’s military operations.

Image 1: The statue of Duke Richelieu, surrounded by sandbags to protect it from shelling on March 9, 2022. Posted on Flickr by manhhai. CC BY 2.0.

The first objective is economic. Greater Odessa is the second largest port on the Black Sea, and consists of a system of 7 ports. 80% of Ukrainian exports pass through the three largest of these seven, Odessa, Yuzhny and Chornomorsk, which are located respectively in the north and south of the city. The main function of the port of Odessa is the export of Ukrainian grain, cereals and sunflower seeds. Ukraine is an international agricultural superpower producing food commodities that feed 400 million people in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia (especially China and India) - in addition to the Ukrainians themselves. Whoever controls the gate from which Ukrainian exports come out, controls the wealth of the country.

By conquering Odessa, Russia would complete its geopolitical goal: occupation of the Ukrainian coast and would have de facto control of the Black Sea. Ukraine would lose its outlet to the sea and be downgraded to a land-locked country. The Black Sea would be dominated by Russia, because Turkey has no relevant ports on that Sea. Moreover, with the conquest of Odessa, Russia could reunite with the Russian enclave of Transnistria in Moldova, which would make for epochal geopolitical success.

Ukrainian stamp
Image 2: Ukrainian Stamp showing the port of Odessa, placed on Wikimedia by Укрпошта. Ukrainian Public Domain.

In addition to Russian economic and geopolitical objectives, Odessa is of a crucial historic and cultural - and therefore symbolic - value. Odessa’s historic centre is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage, and a key cultural site for Russian history. Many Russian and Soviet writers, painters and musicians were born in or lived in Odessa. In the eyes of the Russian intelligentsia, Odessa is a kind of lost family jewel. Conversely, Odessa - also called "Prague by the Sea" - is important to Ukraine to underline its European identity.

Odessa has thusfar been spared from Russian bombings, which were limited to hitting mostly military targets. The historical centre  has not been disfigured, nor has the port infrastructure - useful for the invader in case of conquest - been damaged. The Russian army seems to have been expecting the surrender of Ukraine within a few days. In their view, Odessa would have fallen into Russian hands without the need to fight. That is probably why a landing operation was not prepared. When the Russians realised that their plan had failed, it was too late to organise an invasion from the sea. An attempt to conquer it by land, with troops coming from the Crimea, broke down against the defences of the port city of Mykolaiv.

Military ships
Image 3: Ukrainian Military Ships in Odessa on Navy Day, 2015, placed on Wikimedia by Ввласенко. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Since the beginning of the hostilities, the port of Odessa has been blocked and about 90 ships have been locked in the Ukrainian ports. With the naval blockade, the country’s export is practically strangled, although a minor part of it is channelled by rail to Baltic and Romanian ports. The Russian attack and occupation consequently created stagnation in the global supply chain of food commodities, which confirms the fundamental role of Ukraine as an agricultural exporter, and Odessa as a logistics hub. 

Odessa is at the heart of the Ukrainian economy and the European identity of Ukraine. It can only be hoped that the city and her ports will return to play a fundamental role in the development of Ukraine after the war.

Ugo Poletti is editor-in-chief of the online, English-language The Odessa JournalThis blog was peer-reviewed by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Carola Hein, Hilde Sennema and Vincent Baptist.