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Ochakiv mayor Serhiy Bychkov stands by a mosaic mural depicting the town’s history of fishing and vineyards on Feb. 2.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

They call it “the American Base,” a naval outpost on the Black Sea coveted for millennia by civilizations asserting control here – including, this week, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The southern Ukrainian port town of Ochakiv, population 15,000, offers to the eye little to suggest its importance: a tired post-Soviet community whose people tend grapes, fish the sea and, over the past decade, have sold goods to the U.S. troops who have come here as part of efforts to build up a more sophisticated naval capacity.

Western militaries have called Ochakiv an exemplar of co-operation in ensuring the security of a fragile Ukraine.

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But for Mr. Putin, who recalls the bitter Russian conquest of Ochakiv under Catherine the Great, this place has become a focal point for a fury against a perceived Western encroachment and historical grievance that has fuelled his military aggression against Ukraine.

In a lengthy and bitter speech Monday night that presaged a Russian military invasion into eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin called Ochakiv an American-built maritime operations centre that supports the movement of NATO ships in the waters off Crimea, enabling “the use of high-precision weapons by them against the Russian Black Sea Fleet and our infrastructure along the entire Black Sea coast.”

Worse, he said, the foreign-funded naval buildup constituted a kind of imperial heresy, after the 18th-century conquest of Ochakiv under Alexander Suvorov, one of the greatest military architects of the Russian empire.

Among those watching Mr. Putin’s remarks Monday night was Vitalyii Chupakhin, the director of a building materials store in Ochakiv whose customers have included U.S. soldiers looking to buy rope.

The Russian President, Mr. Chupakhin said, seemed to be seeking grounds for military action. The naval buildup at Ochakiv may be “enough to light a match – and for war to break out between Russia and Ukraine,” he said.

Indeed, the Kremlin “are trying to fabricate and use any excuse possible to justify potential military intervention,” said Mathieu Boulègue, a specialist in post-Soviet defence and security at Chatham House, a U.K. policy and analysis institute.

The invocation of Ochakiv, he said, may signal an intent to take action far beyond the areas of eastern Ukraine where Mr. Putin has already dispatched troops. The Kremlin has said it does not intend a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but Mr. Putin threatened punishment for crimes committed in Odessa, to the west of Ochakiv, a suggestion he intends to wield authority there, too.

“They are definitely interested in potentially pushing – if there is further military escalation – beyond the contact line at Donbas,” Mr. Boulègue said. “They might be interested in closing off the whole seaboard of Ukraine.”

Situated at a triangular point near the outflows of the Southern Bug and Dnipro rivers, Ochakiv’s strategic value in controlling important waterways has been recognized by seagoing nations for more than 2,500 years, with archaeologists discovering traces of Greek colonies from the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. Since the 15th century, its sandy bluffs overlooking the Black Sea have been fortified by the Tatars and the Turks, before its arduous conquest by the Russians in 1788, after a six-month siege that left thousands dead.

Today, while Ochakiv belongs to Ukraine, a statue still commemorates that 18th-century triumph. It is an eagle with outstretched wings standing over a pyramid of cannonballs, a symbol of Russian victory.

A commemoration of the 1788 Russian conquest of Ochakiv.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Russia’s conquest of the Black Sea shoreline, from Crimea to Odessa, marked an “existential achievement,” said Ridvan Bari Urcosta, a Crimea-born historian who is a senior analyst at the Polish think tank Strategy & Future.

For Mr. Putin, for there now to be American military investment there is “shameful.”

But for years that has been the reality in Ochakiv, with the American influence beginning at the razor-wire perimeter fence paid for by the U.S. Navy. Inside that fence, consecutive contingents of U.S. naval construction battalions, known as the “Seabees,” have installed a concrete boat ramp, overhauled the main naval pier and built a maritime operations centre and boat maintenance facility.

The U.S. Navy did not respond to Globe and Mail requests for comment. Repeated Globe requests to visit the facility have been rejected.

Russian political and military leaders have expressed outrage over what is happening in Ochakiv. The operations centre “could be interpreted as an outpost aimed with surveilling Russia’s forces in Crimea,” Admiral Igor Kasatonov, former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, has said. Ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky has warned Ukraine’s leadership that Russia would “drown you there, in the Black Sea,” destroying the government in Kyiv because “this is Russian land – Ochakiv.”

Meanwhile Ochakiv has become an increasingly important centre for Ukraine’s defence, said Ihor Kabanenko, a retired Ukrainian admiral. The maritime operations centre is being transformed into a full naval base, funded in part by Britain, which has agreed to sell Ukraine modern missile ships, compatible with NATO standards, that will dock at Ochakiv.

It is a response, Mr. Kabanenko said, to “Russia’s enormous naval buildup in the Black Sea that is directly threatening Ukraine.” Kyiv’s pursuit of closer military co-operation with NATO countries has included inviting foreign military trainers to deliver instruction at Ochakiv, while the intent of U.S. pier investments at Ochakiv has been to make it possible “to use it for U.S. and allied exercises,” Lieutenant Spencer Bull, a U.S. underwater construction officer, told Breaking Defense in 2019.

Still, what Ukraine is building in Ochakiv poses no risk to Russia, said Evgeniy Poltavchuk, who operates a marine transportation service that docks next to the naval base, where a Ukraine military vessel was parked Tuesday. Naval officers stood guard nearby.

“There’s no danger for Putin here at all today. You can see for yourself. There’s nothing,” Mr. Poltavchuk said, calling the Russian leader a “sick, old, crazy man.”

Mr. Putin’s comments suggest a different outlook for Ochakiv, said Serhiy Bychkov, the town’s mayor.

“There is danger and it’s real. I hope that is clear to everyone now,” he said, describing preparation of evacuation plans.

“Only a fool is not afraid.”

With a report from Mark MacKinnon

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