Russian Fleet Approach Has Ukraine’s Port City Odesa Bracing
Russia’s invasion is gaining pace in the country’s open and hard-to-defend coastal plains.
(Bloomberg) -- With a naval fleet reported near the Ukrainian city of Odesa and the city of Kherson taken, it’s increasingly clear that Russia’s invasion is gaining pace in the country’s open and hard-to-defend coastal plains, even as its advance is slowed in the north.
Along with Russia’s shift to more aggressive artillery and aerial attacks on urban centers, that is tempering optimism over Ukraine’s ability to sustain its so far effective organized resistance against a superior force.
“We are now in for the long haul and Russia is reorganizing itself to ensure that it wins this war,” according to Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, who spoke on a webinar. “So the implications of the Russian way of war is that we need to prepare now for humanitarian catastrophe.”
In the north, a combination of stronger than expected Ukrainian pushback and logistics failures that left many forces sidelined has slowed the Russian advance.
In the south, Ukraine’s military headquarters said on Thursday that Russia was sending four amphibious assault ships to land troops near Odesa, a city of 1 million and a major seaport. Images on social media purported to show the landing craft and their escort standing off the southern coast of Crimea, opposite the coastline that includes Odesa.
“Who the f*** are you saving us from?” Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, who until 2017 had a Russian passport and had been viewed with suspicion by pro-Ukrainians, said in a video clip posted on his official Facebook page on Thursday.
Other images from earlier in the week showed citizens making steel tank traps and sandbags, in anticipation of a potential amphibious assault the local military believes has been delayed by poor weather conditions. Widespread reports of an attempt that was aborted at the last moment on Monday could not be independently verified.
“The fact that they left occupied Crimea (for Odesa) is true,” Alexander Kovalenko, an Odesa-based military analyst for the website Inforesist, said on Wednesday of the Russian naval detachment. “Why they didn’t attempt to land I don’t know.”
The situation in Odesa is stable, but that’s unlikely to last, Kovalenko said, not least because the city hosts a large – if for years inactive – population of pro-Russian residents. In 2014, they clashed with supporters of the so-called Maidan revolution, leaving 48 dead. All but two were pro-Russians, and 42 died when the building they had retreated to was set on fire.
On Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy replaced Odesa’s regional governor, Serhiy Hrynevetsky, with Maksym Marchenko, an army colonel who until last year commanded a mechanized brigade in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, according to Ukrinform, Ukraine’s state news agency.
While several Russian attempts to land troops around Odesa since Feb. 24 have been repelled, these were small diversionary operations, according to Kovalenko.
“It’s clear that Russia intends to punch a corridor to Transnistria, and in that regard Odesa is both the last and the key element,” Kovalenko said. Transnistria is a pro-Russia enclave of neighboring Moldova, just 70 (42 miles) northwest of the city. Russia has has not said it plans to extend its “special military operation” in Ukraine to Moldova.
Across the south, maps produced by Western analysts to track Russia’s invasion of its westward neighbor already show areas shaded to mark occupation starting to join in a solid strip along the coasts of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
An amphibious landing of marines took Ukraine’s second Azov Sea port Berdyansk and may have pressed on to join with Russian and pro-Russia separatist troops pushing west to encircle and lay siege to the southern city of Mariupol. That city of more than 500,000 was under heavy bombardment again on Thursday. Electricity and heat have been cut off.
Meantime troops that moved out of Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014, spread east, taking the town of Melitopol and could soon create a land corridor from the peninsula to Russia’s mainland border, should Mariupol fall. Until now, Crimea and Russia have been connected only by a 19 km (11.8 miles) bridge that opened in 2018.
Other troops from Crimea moved west to Kherson and Mykolaiv, the last significant town before the historic port city of Odesa and potentially -- if the arrows on a campaign map shown in video footage behind Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko are to be believed – the neighboring ex-Soviet republic of Moldova. The map suggests a force landing east of Odesa and driving directly north, before heading west through Transnistria.
Not everything has gone according to plan for Russia, including in the south. Ukrainian authorities in Mykolaiv said they fended off an attack on Wednesday morning.
A cold reception from Russian speaking citizens of towns such as Berdyansk that President Vladimir Putin aimed to liberate, with residents chanting “go home” rather than wave flags, suggests the expanse from Mariupol to Odesa -- like the rest of the country -- may be easier for Russian troops to capture than to hold.
In the north of the country, heavy fighting and shelling continued in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv. Huge quantities of equipment and supplies continue to push toward the capital, Kyiv. Russia says it is only aiming for military targets.
Russian defense specialist for Chatham House Mathieu Boulegue, speaking on the same webinar as Giles on Wednesday, said there were signs -- including Russian attacks on communications infrastructure in Kyiv, and the spread of false declarations of capitulation online -- that Russia will bring its full cyber warfare capabilities and air power to bear in the coming days.
That could rupture communications between Ukraine’s commanders and defenses across the eastern half of a nation roughly the size of France, as well as their ability to move food and new weapons supplies from Europe and the U.S. to the places they’re needed, according to Boulegue.
The Kremlin’s “intention at the moment is really to storm Kyiv, take it over by force with all the brutality and all the tactics that Russia has in its playbook,” he said, predicting a long war of attrition. Having removed the government, Russia would also aim to change the narrative of its campaign, he said, because with no political leadership “the army is no longer an army, it’s a group of ‘terrorists’.”
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