The grip is tightening on the southern front. For two days, Odessa has been back in the news for the intense war activity that has come to its coasts and its skies. If it is indeed true—as many think, and even more hope—that Russian troops will not dare to bomb one of the symbols of the “Russian nation,” it is equally true that the Black Sea coast remains one of the most unpredictable theaters of the war.
Kherson was conquered by the Russian army two weeks ago. Moscow’s troops immediately made it clear that the city north of Crimea was one of the key objectives of the first phase of the conflict. First, because of the presence of the dam that could otherwise cut off drinking water supplies to the entire peninsula to the south, which has been in Russian hands since 2014 and is crucial to the advance westward and northward. Second, because of the city’s important strategic location. Overlooking the mouth of the Dnieper, Kherson is more or less halfway between the southern Ukrainian borders and, more importantly, is a key junction between Mariupol and Odessa. On Monday, there was a protest by Ukrainians who marched through the city with flags and banners, chanting that “Kherson is Ukrainian.”
There were some incidents with the occupation troops, but fortunately no tragedy occurred. However, this episode, which is not the first one, and the movements of Ukrainian troops in the surroundings could hint at an imminent counterattack. The soldiers we have tried to ask in recent days were never willing to give us an answer, but one of them told us something that sounded like a warning: “Kherson will not remain Russian for much longer.” If—and we underline, if—this actually happens, the situation there could rapidly change.
In Mariupol, the situation is disastrous: without water, electricity and gas for two weeks, the city is battered every day by Russian artillery, and, while we were waiting to know what happened to the 1,300 evacuees who had taken refuge in the city’s theater, on Sunday night the RIA Novosti (Russian) agency said that Minister of Defence Sergej Shoigu had given the city an ultimatum.
He demanded that the Ukrainians surrender the city by 5 a.m. on March 21 and lay down their arms. If they did so, according to RIA Novosti, Russian troops would open humanitarian corridors to allow both unarmed civilians and soldiers to leave. It was not clear if these corridors would allow the besieged to move to the territories still controlled by Kiev or if the only exit routes allowed would be to the east.
The reply from the Ukrainian government was not long in coming and arrived through the words of the Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, who declared that “surrender is not an option.” Moreover, without showing too much fear about the threat, the local authorities asked the invading army to open safe corridors “immediately.” Beyond the press statements, it seems that the survival of the more than 200,000 civilians still in Mariupol is seriously at risk, and the military defenses of the city are unable to hold much longer.
Here, the Russians have managed to accomplish what they have tried to do, so far unsuccessfully, in the rest of the country: namely to annihilate the anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses. In other words, for almost 15 days, the defense of the port of entry to the Azov Sea has been entrusted to ground troops alone, which has led to an increasingly unbridgeable gap between the two armies. As of now, the fate of the city seems sealed, and people expect the official declaration that it passed into Russian hands any minute.
We mentioned it at the start because, even if it is hundreds of kilometers away, Mariupol is of crucial importance for the whole southern front of Ukraine. The conquest of the city would mean the possibility for Putin’s army to create a continuous line between the province of Rostov-on-Don, Donbass, Crimea and, finally, Mykolaiv.
That would remedy one of the biggest shortcomings of the Russian army so far, namely the lack of efficient and secure supply lines. And it would also be possible to assist in a breakthrough attempt, feared by many military analysts, aimed at closing down on Odessa and starting the final advance towards the Black Sea. At that point, the ships stationed in front of the coastline of the most important port of the region could actually intervene, perhaps supported by new arrivals from the naval base of Sevastopol in Crimea or by some submarine which the satellites are still not detecting.
This is how the developments of the last 48 hours can be understood, marked, much more than in the past days, by intense artillery activity. Throughout the day on Sunday, barrages of anti-aircraft fire were heard in Odessa, and even though the sirens only sounded twice, it was evident to all that the city’s defenses were hard at work. At 8 p.m., a blast shook the ground, and shortly afterwards it became known that the anti-aircraft defenses had been able to intercept a Russian drone halfway between the Otrada beach and the city center. Throughout the night, the shots continued and the sirens sounded several times.
On Monday, at dawn, the city experienced some moments of serious fear. In one of the first mornings without fog, against the background of a calm sea and the timid March sun, the coast north of the city was bombarded for several minutes. Videos taken from the overlooking heights show several shots fired into the water, perhaps to try to hit the line of mines positioned by the Ukrainian navy to defend the bay. It is known that one of Moscow’s main concerns about a possible landing is the safety of the ships up to the beach.
Then, howitzer fire was aimed at the mainland; it wasn’t clear what the target was. Several houses on the seashore were seriously damaged; fortunately, there were no casualties for now. Some buildings in the vicinity suffered superficial damage, and in a building two kilometers from the beach a fire started that kept the firefighters engaged for several hours, raising a column of black smoke up into the otherwise clear sky above the city.
It is clear that this spring will be remembered for a long time by the inhabitants of Odessa. This year, one won’t be able to see Russian families on vacation, and clubs will not start advertising their events by the sea for the young people from St. Petersburg who come to take advantage of the mild climate and seaside entertainment. But that’s how it is: now, the distance between what was one of the cradles of modern Russian culture and its former visitors has become unbridgeable.