Why Odesa Is So Important to Ukraine in the War With Russia

The last two nights have brought some of the most furious Russian aerial assaults on Odesa, the southern Ukrainian port city, of the nearly 17-month-long war. The city on the Black Sea has long been Ukraine’s link to the global economy and home to its busiest ports.

With Russia’s withdrawal this week from an internationally backed wartime agreement that allowed for Ukraine to ship grain across the Black Sea, much of it from Odesa, the city’s importance has again come into focus.

Here is a look at Odesa and its role in the war:

What is Odesa’s history?

Established in 1794 by the empress Catherine the Great on land conquered from the Ottoman Empire on the site of the Black Sea fortress town of Khadzhibei, Odesa holds economic, symbolic and strategic significance.

In 1855, Robert Sears’ guide to the Russian Empire declared, “There is perhaps no town in the world in which so many different tongues may be heard as in the streets and coffeehouses of Odessa.” He wrote that the city included “Russians, Tartars, Greeks, Jews, Poles, Italians, Germans, French, etc.”

In many ways, Odesa represents the antithesis of President Vladimir V. Putin’s brand of Russian ethnic nationalism. But for Mr. Putin, who views himself as on a historic mission to rebuild the Russian Empire, Odesa holds a special place in his war of conquest.

What has happened in Odesa during the war?

In the first weeks after Mr. Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — as his military rained missiles down on cities and towns across the nation — Odesa was left largely unscathed. The first reported bombing of the city was not until nearly a month after the invasion began and it was directed at the city’s outskirts. No casualties were reported.

Moscow had hoped to quickly topple the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, sending columns of fighters toward the capital in the early days of the invasion in an attempt to seize it. Russian warships also menaced the coast, but the Kremlin appeared intent on claiming Odesa without ruining the city known as “the pearl of the Black Sea.”

A soldier digging along the beachfront in Odesa in March 2022.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Russia’s forces were driven back from Kyiv, but even as its military campaign has been met by repeated setbacks — and as its forces are now trying mainly to cling onto land captured in the first weeks of the war — it has continued to try and ravage the Ukrainian economy by exercising a de facto naval blockade of the ports in and around Odesa.

Moscow is no longer intent on cutting off Ukraine’s ports simply by blocking ships from leaving, Ukrainian officials said after the latest aerial assault against Odesa on Wednesday. By targeting the city’s shipping facilities with missiles and drones, Ukrainian officials said, Mr. Putin wants to destroy the infrastructure that allows Ukraine, a major grain exporter, to provide food to the world.

What is Odesa’s importance in the grain deal?

The three ports that ring Odesa are Ukraine’s largest and include the only deepwater port in the country. Before the war, about 70 percent of Ukraine’s total imports and exports were carried out by sea, and nearly two-thirds of that trade moved through the ports of Odesa.

Under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, brokered last year by the United Nations and Turkey, Ukrainian ships set sail from the ports of Odesa and other cities, past Russia’s blockade, carrying food needed to keep global prices stable. Now that Russia has unilaterally withdrawn from the deal, saying it is one-sided in Ukraine’s favor, Moscow “does not guarantee security” of ships traveling across the sea, said Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey.

“And this means that they will attack ports, infrastructure and possibly ships,” he warned, speaking on national television.

With the main port now closed and coming under attack, Odesa is in a strange state of limbo, said Dmytro Barinov, the deputy head of the Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority. The famed Potemkin Stairs — a staircase of 192 steps that lead from the grand streets of the city to the gritty port — are closed off, guarded by soldiers on both sides and ringed with barbed wire.

“The working port means the life for Odesa,” Mr. Barinov said.

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