On the front line of Russian attacks, Ukraine’s Odesa cries out for US aid

As increasingly frequent and ferocious attacks kill civilians, Odesa is calling for promised US air defences.

A rescuer stands in a residential area hit by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine March 15, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A rescuer stands in a residential area hit by a Russian missile attack in Odesa, on March 15, 2024 [Stringer/Reuters]

After leaving Odesa largely untouched by the barrages of drones and missiles it has launched against Ukraine this winter, Russia has struck the port city during March as never before in this war.

On March 2, a Russian drone demolished a nine-storey building, killing at least 12 people in one of the deadliest attacks behind the front lines this year.

“The delay in the supply of weapons for Ukraine, air defence systems for the protection of our people leads, unfortunately, to such losses,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, referring to US House Speaker Mike Johnson’s refusal to table a bill including $60bn in air defences and ammunition for Ukraine this year.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visit a makeshift memorial to the victims of the previous day’s drone attack that heavily damaged an apartment building, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, on March 6, 2024 [Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters]

Just four days later, Russia landed a ballistic missile inside the commercial port less than 500 metres (1,640 feet) from where Zelenskyy stood with visiting Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Then, on March 15, Russia launched a deadly cocktail of missiles and Iranian-designed Shahed drones.

Ukrainian defenders managed to shoot down all 27 of the drones, but two Iskander short-range ballistic missiles landed on the Bolshoi Fontan – or Great Fountain – promontory, a tall escarpment overlooking the Black Sea, surrounded by popular beaches and a promenade.

‘I thought the end of the world had come’

Paramedics Mikhail Ivankevich and Sergei Rotaru were among the first to arrive on the scene.

“We arrived almost immediately after the first missile struck and saw two victims. We took one into our ambulance, and the other was to be picked up by a second ambulance,” Ivankevich told Al Jazeera.

“Suddenly, we heard that another rocket was flying. We started to drive away and tried to pick up speed, but didn’t have time … The ambulance was completely wrecked.”

Rotaru, 31, was killed – one of 21 fatalities that day – leaving behind a widow and two young sons.

“It’s a miracle that I survived,” said Ivankevich, who believed the time delay between two missiles striking the same spot was a deliberate ploy to kill first responders.

A kilometre (0.6 miles) away, pensioner Elena Ivanovna Roshkovan was out shopping with her neighbours Peter and Nadezhda Sosnora. Their houses were on the edge of Camp Victoria – a summer camp for elementary schoolchildren. Here, too, missiles fell.

“When the first explosion occurred, my neighbours and I were not far from our houses,” Elena Ivanovna told Al Jazeera.

“We went to the store and were already on our way back. When the rocket exploded, I thought the end of the world had come. My legs went numb from fear.”

The Sosnoras ran towards their house.

“’Where are you running?’ I shouted to them,” Ivanovna said. “’There is a car in the yard’, they said, ‘We need to drive it away from the house.’”

The Sosnoras didn’t make it. A second blast wave overturned the car and it caught fire.

In many nearby houses, windows were broken, roofs were torn off, and courtyard buildings destroyed. A week later, work was continuing to restore gas supply in this microdistrict.

Fresh flowers near the road attest to the tragedies of March 15 – as do holes in the fence where missile shrapnel tore through. No one is allowed into Camp Victoria.

Throughout the city, 64 houses were damaged and four destroyed, causing consternation among Ukraine’s allies.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk urged Mike Johnson, speaker of the United States House of Representatives, to “look at” Odesa.

“How many more arguments do you need to take a decision?” Tusk wrote on X.

Johnson is an ally of presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who says he wants to end the war quickly.

“Russia’s war against Ukraine knows no bounds,” declared Moldovan Prime Minister Maia Sandu, adding that her heart is with Odesa. “Ukraine needs urgent help to protect itself and protect peace in Europe. My heart is with Odesa.”

Why is Russia targeting Odesa?

The attacks have since become more frequent.

Russia launched a massive nationwide attack on March 22, using 151 drones and missiles targeting 136 energy facilities, said Ukraine’s General Staff – some of them in Odesa.

Dozens of missiles hit their mark, in the largest attack against Ukrainian energy infrastructure since February 2022. Odesa remained without power for at least part of the day a week later.

More missiles and drones were downed over Odesa on Sunday and Monday. One missile struck the Odesa Sanatorium on Monday, causing only material damage.

Some of the rationale for targeting the port city could be pure opportunism.

Odesa is exposed to a wide expanse of open sea, on the other side of which lies the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, from which many of the missiles and drones are launched.

“Drones offer a few minutes’ warning to get to a shelter, but after sirens sound, missiles strike within a minute,” Spyros Boubouras, a member of Odesa’s large Greek community, told Al Jazeera.

“Whenever Ukraine had a successful strike in Crimea, the following week in Odesa was sheer hell.”

“The location of air defence in the Odesa region is built in such a way that it is not always possible to intercept both drones and missiles on the approaches to the city itself,” Ukrainian air force spokesperson Yuri Ignat recently said at a news conference.

Some reasons are psychological.

Ukraine has humiliated Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, sinking or crippling as much as half of it despite having no navy of its own, using aerial and surface drones. The latest Ukrainian attack against the fleet’s base at Sevastopol on Friday damaged two landing ships and a repair dock.

“The Ukrainians have just about equalised the balance of power at sea,” Athens University geopolitics professor Ioannis Kotoulas told Al Jazeera. “The Russians haven’t managed to win back their lost prestige.”

‘When sirens now sound, people immediately seek shelter’

The defeat of the Black Sea Fleet has enormous economic importance, too.

Ukraine has been able to maintain exports of its agricultural goods by sea – chiefly from Odesa – despite Russia’s threats last July that it would sink merchant ships hailing from Ukrainian ports.

Ukraine’s agriculture ministry said its overall exports last year were 7 percent higher in value compared with 2022, reaching $23bn, and its grain exports increased from 37 million tonnes to 43 million tonnes.

Those exports are of even greater value this year, with US aid frozen. In its third review of an Extended Fund Facility this month, the International Monetary Fund found Ukraine’s economy “continued to show remarkable resilience in 2023,” and its “authorities continue to perform strongly … under challenging conditions,” as it released $880m for budget support.

“Odesa is a basic target because it is a node for grain exports, either towards the Danube or via the [Black Sea] ships,” said Kotoulas. “Russia wanted to create insecurity and concern in Ukraine’s rear, despite the fact that a Russian assault on the city is now out of the question.”

“I think they do it for their own internal propaganda,” said Boubouras. “People here have stopped trying to explain Russian actions rationally. We all understand that anyone at any time anywhere can be a target.”

The intense focus on Odesa is changing people’s behaviour, but has not blunted their resolve, he said.

“There is greater fear, for sure,” he said. “For example, when sirens now sound people immediately seek shelter, whereas before these strikes, people didn’t really believe the city centre would be hit.”

But the freezing of US aid by House Republicans has Odesans worried.

“This whole act of resistance began in 2014 because Ukraine made the choice to be in the West,” said Boubouras.

“Does the US have an obligation to help Ukraine? I say, when a country wants to turn the page and receives assurances and promises and then stops receiving assistance, that really is not correct. And that is a widespread feeling.”

Source: Al Jazeera