Odessa, the pearl of the Black Sea, prepares to receive the blow of the Russian bear

A service member of the 28th Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces preparing to defend Odessa. Russian forces will launch a landing there in the next few hours. Ukrainian Defense Ministry/Handout via REUTERS. (Handout ./)

The poet Aleksandr Pushkin characterized it as “the most European of Russian cities”. Odessa has a Mediterranean imprint with its elegant boulevards and buildings of French and Italian architecture. Also its beaches. They promote it as “the pearl of the Black Sea”. One of its icons is its famous opera house where this week a season of Madame Butterfly had to begin, performed by singers from various European countries. But the place that the elegantly dressed people were going to pass through to attend the premiere this Thursday, now it’s covered in sandbags and the only ones walking around are the volunteer militiamen with the yellow armbands who organize the defense of the city.

The Odessa Opera in 1941 and in 2022.
The story in circles. The Odessa Opera House during the Nazi invasion of 1941 and now, awaiting the Russian invasion.

Russian forces prepare to launch an amphibious landing ship and take the city. They also have infantry units advancing from the west after conquering Kherson, which is across the bay at the mouth of the Dnieper River and about 120 miles by land. Thursday morning several ships poked their noses out and stationed themselves a few miles off the coast. Visible enough to scare the million people who live in the city.

An Ivan Gren-class landing ship could be seen, believed to be the “Pyotr Morgunov” which can carry attack helicopters, 13 tanks or 36 infantry vehicles and 300 soldiers. They were also filmed loitering off the coast two Alligator-class ships, each of which can carry surface-to-air missiles, 20 tanks and 300 troops, and five Ropucha-class ships they can each drop 10 tanks and 190 ground troops. In total, I could disembark a force of almost 3,000 soldiers and more than 100 tanks.

In any case, typical scenes like the Normandy landings will not be recorded, with boats reaching the beaches under artillery crossfire, opening their hatches and spitting out soldiers who run to bury themselves in the sand. Now, everything is more “verbose”, landing craft arrive protected by helicopter gunships and they will not end up in a lost cove. They look for the port areas already cleared by the bombardment of the fighters and the soldiers descend as if they were divas of the 50s descending the stairs of an ocean liner.

Heavy equipment is brought in by huge helicopters or directly unloaded by port cranes. The largest draft ships such as the “Pyotr Morgunov” they have their own cranes and landing gates. An amphibious attack brings complications at first, but later it makes it easier for troops, vehicles and helicopters to operate. Ships generally they wait a few miles out to sea with ammunition, food and spare parts within reach of a short boat ride.

In recent days, the workers of the tram system that runs through the city they dedicated themselves to cutting old rails to assemble them in a cross. They are what in military jargon are known as the “porcupine” barricades that can stop the advance of the tanks. They are also useful to complicate the landing in the coastal area in front of the city center. On Wednesday, the city’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, assured that they had put together “a robust defense”. They had a few days more than their colleagues in Kiev or Kharkiv, which were attacked from the very beginning of the invasion. Although the fall of Kherson, with some 300,000 inhabitants, in Russian hands lowered the spirits. While last night they closely followed what was happening in the other important port, Mariupol, which suffered a heavy artillery bombardment and where some of the ships of the fleet sent by the Kremlin also approached.

The images coming from Kherson are devastating. Mayor Igor Kolykhaev said in a tweet that they were collecting the corpses, many of them unidentifiable, which they dumped in mass graves. He also said that the military chief of the Russian occupation already told him that he was going to impose a civil-military junta with some of its commanders and pro-Russian separatists to rule the city. Although he added that all this was provisional and the only thing they wanted was to ensure the operation of the aqueduct that brings water to the Crimean peninsula, which the Russians invaded and annexed in 2014.

But is Odessa the great prize for the invaders. It is another of the “Greek Plan” cities that Prince Potemkin built for Catherine the Great in 1700. It was the jewel in the crown of the Russian Empire and a fundamental commercial port for the Soviet Union. His name is turning in the memories for the film “The Odessa File” based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth. And because of the name given to the secret collaboration network developed by Nazi groups to helping SS members escape from Germany to other countries where they were safe, particularly to Latin America. It was also very popular with the Soviet leaders who went there to spend their vacations in luxurious state villas. Putin spoke nostalgically several times about the reconstitution of the New Russia of the imperial erawith a region along the Black Sea centered on Odessa.

The Tarantul-III warship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.  At least 11 ships are already concentrated off the coast of Odessa with some 3,000 marines and more than 100 tanks and helicopters.  EFE/Sergei Ilnitsky
The Tarantul-III warship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. At least 11 ships are already concentrated off the coast of Odessa with some 3,000 marines and more than 100 tanks and helicopters. EFE/Sergei Ilnitsky (SERGEI ILNITSKY SERGEI ILNITSKY/)

Like the eastern enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, Odessa was the scene of a Russian-backed separatist uprising in 2014 who wanted to create an independent state. But he was crushed after a series of pitched battles pitting separatists against Ukrainian nationalists backed by the barra bravas (violent soccer fans) of local clubs. The clashes culminated in the burning of a union building on the outskirts of Odessa. At least 40 pro-Russian activists were killed.

A few days before the invasion began, Putin issued a threat against those who started the fire, suggesting that he was very aware of what happened in Odessa. “The criminals who committed this evil act have not been punished,” she said. “Nobody looks for them, but we know them by name.”

If Putin wanted to instill fear in the civilian population, he had already done so with that phrase. Now, the sight of ships on the horizon of the sea is even more disturbing. Everyone knows that in a matter of hours they will have that enormous force on top of them. At any other time, the streets of the city would be full of girls and boys going from bar to bar and enjoying the early spring that Odessa is experiencing these days. Last night, everything was closed, with very few lights, waiting for the claw of the Russian bear.


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