ODESA, Ukraine — If any Western leaders still nurse fantasies about talks with Vladimir Putin over the fate of Ukraine, Russia’s treatment of this historic port city proves they are fools.
Just one day after signing a deal on July 23 to stop blockading Ukraine’s grain exports — which are critical to preventing famine in the Mideast and Africa — Russia shelled the port of Odesa from which the grain shipments were meant to resume. Another Russian missile attack on Ukraine’s coast on Tuesday made it even less likely that owners and insurers will risk their vessels in a grain convoy.
In the meantime, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is on a propaganda tour of Africa, falsely blaming Ukraine and the West for soaring grain prices. Never mind that Russian warships off Ukraine’s Black Sea and Azov Sea coast have been shelling and seizing key Ukrainian ports for months, even as they block Odesa’s harbor.
“It is very important that the world knows the truth about the situation in Odesa,” the city’s beleaguered mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, told me in his office at Odesa’s city hall, which is draped with blue and yellow banners and ringed with huge piles of white sandbags. “Our city is on the front line, including the information front line, and we must respond to Russian mass media fakes.”
Trukhanov never imagined becoming a wartime mayor of Ukraine’s third-largest city and most critical port. About one-fifth of its 1 million people fled after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, only to be replaced by refugees from territory seized by Russian forces.
The mayor has to juggle normal city business, like keeping transportation running and collecting garbage, while coping with Russia’s blockage of the port that was the heart of the city’s economy. “We still plant seasonal flowers to keep spirits high,” Trukhanov stressed.
Just beyond the mayor’s building — and now barred to public access by guards and barriers — lie the iconic Potemkin stairs, a symbol of the city. The huge stone steps descend toward the harbor that once fed the world.
The mayor wants the world to know that Putin has twisted the narrative of the city’s history to justify his claim that Odesa rightfully belongs to Russia. True, the city was founded on the orders of Russian Empress Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century, and was part of a swath of Russian-controlled territory along the Black Sea known at the time as Novorossiya.
Yet Odesa has been a multicultural city since its inception. The prominent city statue of Catherine (who was German by origin) is surrounded by smaller statues of the city’s primary founders who included a Spaniard and a Flemand — and its primary 19th-century developer was a French duke. The glorious 18th- and 19th-century architecture of the city, along with its restaurants, reflect the widespread influence of Italians, Greeks, and a large Jewish population before World War II. The city’s famous opera house was designed by an Austrian, and its popular nickname — Odessa-Mama — came from an old Yiddish song.
Most Odesans are Russian speakers. But, said the mayor, “when Russia is killing people here, it is considered unpatriotic to speak Russian.”
However, Trukhanov insisted one can still speak Russian in Odesa, as he does, and be a patriot. He is resisting pressure from some quarters to remove historic statues such as Catherine’s, saying such a move would be too divisive in wartime. The same goes for the statue of Alexander Pushkin that stands in front of the municipal building: “He is a world star of literature, not an occupier.”
The mayor wanted to make sure, however, that the world gets Odesa’s history straight: “Catherine gave Odesa a start, Europeans built it, and Putin gave another start — to the destruction of the city.” Full stop.
The part of Putin’s depravity that is still difficult to grasp is the Russians’ deliberate assault on civilians. “I can’t understand the logic of targeting shopping centers,” said the mayor, referring to the latest missile attack — on two large local supermarkets, Fozzy and Ideal, a few hours prior to our interview. (I have seen malls and markets demolished in every Ukrainian city I’ve visited.)
“They just want to lay waste to everything,” he concluded, noting that the missile used in early July to target a hotel and apartment building in the small resort town of Serhiivka, 30 miles from Odesa — with no military target nearby — was designed to destroy huge ships.
“This is deliberate killing of everything in a wide area,” he said. “I’m absolutely sure they know there was no military objective.” Russia deliberately targets civilians to “create fear and panic all over Ukraine. “The situation in Odesa might seem calm,” he said, noting that the center of the city hadn’t been hit, “but in reality all the population, from kids to the elderly, live in fear.”
“Our kids are afraid of loud noises, even cars, because they take it as the sound of a missile,” the mayor said.
Yet Putin insists Russia doesn’t target civilians and uses only precision weapons, despite mountains of evidence before millions of eyes, including mine. Putin’s lies make Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels look like a piker.
So the Odesa mayor is indeed skeptical that the man he calls “this maniac Putin” will follow through on the grain deal. “The Russian occupiers haven’t kept their promises from the beginning,” Trukhanov said.
Yet Trukhanov recognizes that “it would be catastrophic if the port is not opened soon. All the people involved in agriculture here have no economy at all, no reason to go on with harvesting and sowing, which will have terrible consequences for the Ukrainian economy and all countries where we used to deliver our grain.”
Like the mayor, the outspoken Odesa member of parliament Oleksii Goncharenko doubts Putin wants the grain deal to succeed. He told me, “Putin is doing everything to disrupt the deal.” And co-signatories, Turkey and the United Nations, seem unwilling or unable to control him.
Russia will use the deal as a club against Ukraine, Goncharenko believes, letting convoys of grain ships depart safely only if Kyiv makes political compromises. In reality, he said, “Putin wants millions of African refugees flooding Europe” due to hunger from the absence of grain.
Putin’s maneuvers put the spotlight back on NATO members as to whether they truly want to avoid an African famine. That would require a decision to have NATO ships escort grain vessels in order to challenge Putin’s use of hunger as a weapon, and his illegal control of Black Sea waters.
Meanwhile, Mayor Trukhanov must figure out how to keep Odessa-Mama alive.