In the strategic Black Sea port city of Odesa, residents prepare to fend off Russian attack

When the air raid sirens go off in the Black Sea city of Odesa these days, there are those who run for the bomb shelters and those who keep going about their business — although perhaps in a slightly more subdued manner.

A Ukrainian colleague compared it to the early days of the pandemic, when streets emptied with expectations of potential disaster and fear of the unknown.

But after a while, people started to appear on the streets in greater numbers as they adapted to their changed circumstances.

After all, predictions that Odesa’s strategic value, as Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port and home to its small navy, would make it an early target for the Russians have not come to pass.

Other cities have been bearing the brunt of those early assaults, and so buying Odesa time.

“We understand that while … Kyiv fights, while Kharkiv fights, while Mykolaiv now fights so bravely, we have this gap to prepare the city,” said Inga Kordynovska, a lawyer co-ordinating humanitarian relief from Odesa to front-lines across Ukraine.

Inga Kordynovska is a lawyer co-ordinating humanitarian relief from Odesa to front lines across Ukraine. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

The shelves of bars and stalls in the trendy Odesa Food Market are now filled with medicine and warm clothes for front-line soldiers and essential supplies for people trapped by fighting.

Volunteers in high-viz vests pack boxes or tap away at computers in the market’s two-tiered gallery, under a giant red dragon left over from happier times and still hanging from the ceiling.

Volunteers with the Ukrainian war effort sit in a food market in Odesa. The sign next to the image of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reads, ‘Our nation is not for sale.’ (Jason Ho/CBC)

Kordynovska says the horror of what’s unfolded in cities like Kherson, Melitopol and especially Mariupol to the east is a powerful motivator and a unifier for Odesans preparing their city for war.

“We see that every city where Russian soldiers came, everything was destroyed,” she said. “And of course even those people who say they are not [into] politics — [that] it doesn’t matter for us, Odesa is a separate city — now they understand that, no, you can’t be out of this process. You can’t say, ‘It’s not about me.'”

Odesa ‘had much time to prepare’

Some analysts have suggested the reason Odesa has been spared so far — aside from the strong resistance Russian forces have encountered in cities like Mariupol and Kherson — is because the city, founded by the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great in 1794, holds special significance for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Whatever the reason, authorities appear determined not to squander the time. Odesa’s elegant downtown core is now a closed military zone dressed for war.

WATCH | People in Odesa, Ukraine, prepare for the possibility of a direct fight with the Russian military:

Odesa remains unscathed, purpose vigilant

Odesa, Ukraine, has been spared from any major Russian attacks so far, but residents of the major port city say that doesn’t mean they can relax. 2:30

Metal anti-tank obstacles dot city streets, some so big they dwarf passersby, who appear from afar like tiny pieces caught in a giant’s board game.

Odesa’s baroque opera house is now beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, standing behind sandbags and glistening like a cake on the other side of a checkpoint. Musicians can still get through to practice, showing IDs to soldiers with their instruments slung over their backs.

Residents who haven’t left the closed military zone are also allowed through, including 83-year-old Mark Bradis, who served in the former Soviet army.

“And where can I go?” he said when asked why he hasn’t left the corded-off area. “My wife is ill. She has Alzheimer’s. I take care of her.”

His outlook is bleak.

“It is impossible to defeat [Putin],” he said. “He has a lot of weapons that he has not yet used … I’m afraid it could all end in a nuclear war.”

Bradis asked: “Why should he occupy other people’s lands? Enslave people? I can’t understand. It doesn’t fit in my head.”

As part of fortifications in the event of a full-on Russian attack, Odesa’s baroque opera house stands behind sandbags. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Some of the young soldiers on the checkpoints are more optimistic, insisting Russian troops will never be able to take Odesa.

“They can try,” said Ilya, a 23-year-old who preferred not to give his last name for security reasons. “Odesa in my mind had much time to prepare. The city is definitely ready.”

‘This is a universal evil’

Local authorities are clearly working hard to keep morale high among the city’s defenders.

In a somewhat surreal scene over the weekend, they staged a ceremony to honor members of the National Guard on the empty promenade at the top of the Potemkin Steps, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

There were flags, two armored personnel carriers and a marching band that struck up a zippy tune each time someone’s name was called to receive a certificate — but no public to watch and clap for them.

In a bid to boost morale, this past weekend, local authorities staged a ceremony to honor members of the National Guard. It included flags, two armored personnel carriers and a marching band. (Jason Ho/CBC)

The formerly pro-Russian mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, was on hand.

“I could not imagine that I would consider [Russians] our enemies,” he said in an interview with CBC News.

Most Odesans are native Russian speakers, and in the past there have been divisions over issues of Ukrainian and Russian identity in the city. Trukhanov says Putin’s invasion has put an end to that.

“What politicians have failed to do in 30 years — as they say, to sew Ukraine together — we have succeeded today. We realized that we are all Ukrainian brothers and we have one land. It needs to be protected, and we will do so .”

Odesa residents sing the state anthem after building a barricade for a checkpoint last week. (Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Trukhanov insisted “we are not relaxing.”

“And I would advise European countries not to relax, either. Because this is a universal evil, a global evil, which today has shown its entire essence by unleashing a bloody war and killing civilians.”

Watching Russian advances

The air raid sirens sound often in Odesa in part because the city’s air defense systems engage with cruise missiles launched by Russian warships stationed somewhere in the Black Sea at targets further inland.

Odesa itself has reportedly been hit by shelling only once, in a residential neighborhood on the outskirts.

On Tuesday, though, a cruise missile hit the Regional State Administration Building in Mykolaiv, another port city about 130 kilometers east of Odesa.

So far, Ukrainian forces have managed to keep Russian troops from advancing beyond Mykolaiv.

But if the Russians were able to get past Mykolaiv on land, the consensus for many is that Moscow would be more likely to try landing troops near Odesa by sea.

Some of the beaches along the southern coast have reportedly been mined by the Ukrainians in a bid to prevent any such attempt.

And along one Odesa stretch, near the now-dormant yacht club, local volunteers of all ages gather regularly with shovels to help fill sandbags, which are then trucked elsewhere for the city’s defence.

A woman fills a sandbag from the beach in Odesa, as part of a larger effort to fortify the city’s defenses against a possible Russian attack. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Among the volunteers is Olga Hodis, a librarian in her 60s. She says it helps calm nerves to be doing something practical.

“Sitting and doing nothing is much worse. When you do something, you feel like you’re being useful. Otherwise, you can read the news all the time and feel fearful and have panic attacks.”

Inga Kordynovska, who is co-ordinating the city’s humanitarian hub, calls the community spirit a continuation of the 2014 Maidan uprising, which led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russia central government of the day.

“You know, Maidan gave us great feelings of co-operation, but now, it is a hundred times more,” she said.

“Now, we forget absolutely all our previous conflicts inside Ukraine. It doesn’t matter with whom — with power, with authorities, with business, with volunteer organizations. Everybody now really co-operates. And I think it’s the main weapon in this war.”

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