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Opinion Odessa is Putin’s next target. It desperately needs our help.

People navigate antitank barriers known as "hedgehogs" in Odessa, Ukraine, on March 16. (Stepan Franko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
5 min

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is coming soon to the country’s third-largest city, Odessa, often called Ukraine’s “southern capital.” The people of the city are in desperate need of weapons and humanitarian aid to survive the coming onslaught. So far, though, the international community isn’t focused enough on this crucial battle — and the window of opportunity is closing.

Odessa’s mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, told me during an interview that he doesn’t know exactly when Russian forces will attack, but ominous signs are everywhere. Russian warships are probing the Black Sea beaches and shelling parts of the coastline, indications an amphibious invasion force might soon be on the way. Ukrainians have tried to mine the beaches, but there aren’t enough mines to go around. Military units are positioned to resist any landing, but Ukrainian forces don’t have enough antiship weapons, such as Harpoon missiles, to keep the Russian fleet at bay.

The Russian ships that threaten Odessa from the sea represent only one prong of an expected three-pronged attack. Thousands of Russian ground forces with heavy equipment are pushing toward Odessa from the east, though they are meeting stiff Ukrainian resistance. To the west, the mayor said he expects Putin to activate Russian troops already stationed in Transnistria, a Moldovan territory occupied by soldiers Moscow calls “peacekeepers.”

“Our concern is that the city could be surrounded,” said Trukhanov, a former Soviet military officer now leading a city of almost 1 million people preparing to fight. “This is exactly the scenario we are expecting from the enemy.”

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As Russian ships and artillery bombard towns on the city’s outskirts, Odessa risks losing its ability to both receive and disperse aid to other Ukrainian cities on the front lines, he said. Unless the pace and flow of military and humanitarian aid increase fast, Odessa could be cut off.

“We need so many things, I don’t know where to start,” the mayor said. “We appreciate your help in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe.”

After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to Congress on Wednesday and pleaded with the United States “to do more,” the White House released a list of new military aid to Ukraine. The list included lots of equipment to combat the Russian threat from the air, but for combating the Russian threat from the sea, the total U.S. contribution is only three patrol boats.

Each day the international community drags its feet in sending humanitarian and military support to Odessa, the danger of a Russian siege or occupation rises. Losing Odessa to Russian control would be disastrous, both for Ukraine and the world. The city is Ukraine’s most important port and boasts considerable industrial capacity. Known for its culture, diversity and rich interfaith history, Odessa won’t be able to replace its heritage and cultural sites if Russian forces destroy them.

More broadly, the fall of Odessa would bring the war even closer to NATO states such as Romania, because of the likelihood that Russian troops in Transnistria could become involved. Trukhanov said that Odessans are on the lookout for signs the Russians will reinforce their “peacekeeping” forces across the border.

“Moldova faces a real threat as well,” he said. “After the treacherous attacks on Ukraine by Russian forces, the word ‘peacekeeping’ should never be applied to Russian forces.”

As they wait for Putin to make his move, Odessans are building barricades on the streets with World War II-era technology, training for urban warfare, stocking bomb shelters, and dealing with refugees flowing in from cities such as Mykolaiv, where the fighting is raging right now. Trukhanov said Odessans are determined to help all those in even worse circumstances, down to building shelters for thousands of pets that were abandoned when their owners fled.

“We even care about our small brothers and sisters,” the mayor said. “Odessa people love their pets.”

But Odessans, despite their reputation for being welcoming and gregarious, have run out of hospitality where Russians are concerned. They are prepared to make sure any Russian troops trying to enter their city face severe and deadly resistance.

Odessans “are not warriors,” said Trukhanov. “But when we have unwelcome guests, the people of Odessa become true heroes.”

At each stage of the Ukraine crisis, the United States and Europe have been too slow and reactive, waiting until domestic political pressure and desperate pleas from Ukrainian leaders grow too loud to ignore. In a desire to avoid escalation, the Biden administration has repeatedly failed to do everything in its power to help Ukrainians before Putin attacks them, rather than after.

The heroism of Ukrainian forces and civilians in places such as Mykolaiv is giving Odessa precious but limited time to fortify the city and stockpile supplies. There are many Ukrainians fighting and dying today whom we can no longer reach. The least we can do, to honor their courage and sacrifice, is to step up our support for the Ukrainians who will be fighting a new wave of Russian invaders soon.