The last stand—this is how the citizens of Odessa are seeing their city. The most important port of the Black Sea is certainly one of Moscow’s objectives, but it is not yet known what strategy the Russians have chosen to conquer it. What is certain is that the city is turning into a fortress and that the invading army will not have an easy time if it decides to land here. At the time of publishing this article on Tuesday evening came the news that Russian warships have bombed the coast near the city and that two people were injured. In addition, satellite images were showing 14 ships from Moscow’s fleet, including the 120-meter long landing battleship Pyotr Morgunov, en route to Odessa.
We have said it many times: perhaps the Russians have no interest in destroying Odessa to curb its resistance. It would be too great a blow to public opinion, and hardly justifiable in the eyes of those—apparently many—who consider it a fundamental center of Russian culture.
“But Odessa wasn’t built by the Russians,” says Ivan, a Ukrainian officer in charge of press relations during these days of war. “Do you know that there were a lot of Italians here?” We explained to him that in Italy, in the last few weeks, whenever people mention Odessa, all they talk about is ‘O Sole Mio’ and the historical reconstructions showing that it was Italian emigrants who built it.
He takes all of it seriously: “Italians, Greeks, French and many Ukrainians – they are the ones who built it. But it’s the Russians who made it important, so maybe they want to take it back.” He smiles good-naturedly, as he always does with his very polite manner. “But they won’t succeed, they’ll see what they’ll encounter if they try to come here.” When asked if he thinks they will come soon, he casually replies: “Who knows, we should ask the Russian generals,” and concludes with a smile.
No one has any idea how long this situation will last. Until Tuesday morning, many military analysts feared that the Russian strategy in Odessa could be very different from the one adopted, for example, in the East or in Kiev. It was thought that the Russian general staff might have an interest in lengthening the time frame, perhaps continuing to launch sporadic attacks to keep tensions high, but without attempting to force a takeover immediately. This would be a textbook application of the principle of attrition.
It would serve multiple objectives: first of all, to weaken the morale of the defenders, which at the moment is still high, something that has had so much importance in the battles on other open fronts. Then there would be isolating it from the rest of the country and the cutting off of supply routes that would inevitably lead the city to starvation (but this would take at least two weeks). Finally, the consolidation of the supply network to Russian troops in Crimea and southern Ukraine, to allow the arrival of personnel and equipment for an invasion by land. However, the latest developments on Tuesday night looked like they could disprove this scenario.
But why Odessa has not been attacked yet is a question that everyone is asking. We are not in Lviv, where it was thought to be almost impossible; here, everyone is expecting it at any moment.
There’s hardly any suspense left in Mykolaiv, which for days has been engaged in the defense of the eastern flank of Odessa and the southern front. The city has suffered heavy bombardments and a number of attacks, the number of dead grows every hour, and, according to the Associated Press, “outside the Mykolaiv city morgue, bodies placed in plastic bags lie on the ground because the building had no room for more of the dead.”
In some buildings, people are already starting to stock up on Molotov cocktails in anticipation of a possible attack by infantry and armored vehicles. Here too, for at least the past three days, the exodus of civilians towards the west has begun. Almost all of them are passing through Odessa; some stop in the city, and others, the majority, continue towards Moldova.
On Tuesday, according to the Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicu Popescu, the number of Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the Moldovan border since the beginning of the war reached 328,000. This figure is added to almost two million refugees in Poland, 195,000 in Slovakia, 173,000 in Romania and 25,000 in Hungary (according to UN data updated as of March 13). In other words, we are already at three million displaced persons. On Monday afternoon, the mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski, clarified in a press conference that his city has almost reached its limit. According to Polish authorities, the city has become the main refugee arrival center, and since the beginning of the conflict has already hosted 390,000 refugees (most of whom have not left).
In terms of the humanitarian emergency, Mariupol is still the city that is paying the highest price in this war. According to the local administration, on Tuesday, 2,000 civilian cars managed to leave the city heading west, taking advantage of the “humanitarian corridor” that was finally left open by Russian troops. Further, according to the city authorities, there were just as many vehicles ready to leave for Zaporizhzhia, still under Ukrainian control but almost 300 kilometers away.
According to the statements of the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, on social media, this time the window is supposed to be wider, and the “humanitarian corridor” should be open from 8 pm on Tuesday to 7 am on Thursday. In any case, the fear of sudden attacks remains, especially after dark, and the authorities have advised people not to drive during the night hours.
After Brent Renaud, the documentary filmmaker who was killed on Sunday near Irpin, the Fox News channel announced that two other reporters died on Monday in Horenka, near Kiev. They are Pierre Zakrzewski, an American, and Oleksandra Kuvshynova, a Ukrainian. Traveling with them was their colleague Benjamin Hall, who was injured and is now hospitalized in the capital in critical condition. Zakrzewski was an experienced war correspondent, who had been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and had been personally involved in helping freelancers and their families left in Afghanistan after the American withdrawal to return to the US.
This time as well, the dynamic seems to be the same as in those other places. After a checkpoint, the car in which the journalists were traveling was hit by an artillery barrage that killed Zakrzewski and Kuvshynova on the spot.