More than 150,000 people have fled Odesa as it prepares for a deadly Russian assault like those that have shattered other Ukrainian cities.
“We are still in shock at what is happening – that cities are being ruined in the 21st century, that Ukrainian cities are being wiped off the Earth,” Gennadiy Trukhanov, the mayor of Odesa, told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
The city on the Black Sea, with its centuries of culture and legacy of architectural grandeur, has remained largely untouched by two weeks of war that have deeply scarred other major Ukrainian cities flailed by Russian bombardments.
In Odesa, there are still moments of quiet, times when “the sun is shining on the city, and you are on the road, when for a minute you can forget there is a war,” Mr. Trukhanov said.
Then the air-raid sirens, now sounding with greater frequency, shatter the stillness, and “we get back to the reality of a very cruel war,” he said.
Like many other Ukrainian cities, Odesa was struck by missiles in the early hours of the Russian invasion, awakened on Feb. 24 by explosions that shook homes.
Since then, however, the attacks have been only sporadic. Last week, the city’s marine horizon was studded with Russian navy ships, raising fears of an amphibious assault that has yet to materialize. The Ukrainian military says it has shot down four Russian planes in the Odesa region.
Russian land forces remain more than 100 kilometres away, their advance frustrated by Ukrainian soldiers who have mustered a fierce resistance east of Mykolaiv, another key Black Sea port. If Russian tanks can pass through Mykolaiv, no other major city stands between them and Odesa.
So far, they have been held back.
Odesa has nonetheless braced for the worst as it watches the destruction of other Ukrainian cities, including Russian-speaking ones previously considered friendly to Moscow.
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The war is directed at “all of Ukraine,” Mr. Trukhanov said.
“I don’t want to believe that it can happen in Odesa. But I can see what has happened in Kharkiv, Mariupol and Chernihiv – and what is going on in Kyiv. It’s a horrible thought that this might happen in Odesa as well.”
From the early days of the invasion, residents from all walks of life – from opera singers to perfumers – have joined efforts to fill sandbags, weld anti-tank hedgehogs and fortify some of the city’s landmarks. Blockades have been erected at entrances to key streets. Monuments have been covered, top to bottom, with sandbags.
The armed forces, too, have raced to recover from the initial attack, which demolished the airport’s main radar station and damaged missile defence systems. The Russian strikes “were meant to destroy them, but they did not accomplish their mission,” said Mr. Trukhanov, a former artillery specialist.
“Today, we have replenished our arsenal, and those systems are working well.”
Odesa has long been a favoured city of Russians, who have been drawn for centuries to its beaches, its port and its cosmopolitan energy. Russian remains its dominant language. As recently as last year, more than two-thirds of the city expressed support for the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.”
“I’m sure two-thirds of Odesans have changed their minds on that now,” Mr. Trukhanov said.
He has himself been the subject of widespread allegations – which he denies – that he carries a Russian passport. Also accused of corruption, Mr. Trukhanov previously won a seat in parliament under the pro-Russia Party of Regions while it was under the leadership of Viktor Yanukovych, a former president.
Mr. Yanukovych, who fled Ukraine in 2014, released a statement this week urging President Volodymyr Zelensky to give up the fight.
“You probably dream of becoming a true hero!” he wrote. “But heroism is not for show, it is not about fighting to the last Ukrainian. It is in self-sacrifice, in overcoming your own pride and ambitions to save people’s lives.”
Mr. Yanukovych was found guilty in absentia of treason for asking the Russian army to help quell the pro-Western protests that led to his ouster. He has been touted as one of Moscow’s preferred replacements for Mr. Zelensky.
In Odesa, the mayor sneered at the former president, condemning him as a puppet whose statement was “absurd and even treacherous.”
“He will never be the leader of Ukraine,” Mr. Trukhanov said. “He betrayed the Ukrainian people when he fled. He betrayed the people who have been suffering over the last eight years.”
Russia, he said, has become incomprehensible to a city that once saw itself as part of the Russian world.
Fury now suffuses the city – toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also Russians who have supported the invasion, which Kremlin-controlled state media have described as a liberation of Ukraine.
“The supposed peacekeeping intent of the invader, the claims of pursuing ‘de-Nazification and demilitarization’ of Ukraine while destroying peaceful cities and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees – it is all more than illogical,” Mr. Trukhanov said.
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