Ukraine’s venerable Odessa readies for Russia’s brutal push up the Black Sea coast

Sandbags and steel barricades are placed in a road leading up to Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in downtown Odessa, Ukraine, on March 4.
Sandbags and steel barricades are placed in a road leading up to Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in downtown Odessa, Ukraine, on March 4. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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ODESSA, Ukraine — The beach where locals and tourists sunbathe in the summer is now covered in mines. The sand is being shoveled into sacks that can be used as both roadblocks and glass fortification.

Gaze out across the Black Sea in some parts of the city and Russian warships are visible.

People in Odessa, a critical port and Ukraine’s third-largest city with about 1 million people, are not wondering if Russia plans to launch an assault here. They are sure it will. Of Ukraine’s southern cities, Odessa is the most economically strategic — which is what makes it a no-doubt target for Russian forces who have laid siege other ports to the east.

An attack on Odessa could come from the warships. It could come from the east, where Russian forces already control the port of Kherson and have advanced north to Mykolaiv. It could even come from the west, what was considered the preferred evacuation route to the Moldovan border. Russian forces are posted in the breakaway enclave of Transnistria along a swath of the border with Moldova and Ukraine.

In the past two days, Russia’s warships have been spotted near Odessa’s Chernomorsk and Zatoka beaches, where an amphibious landing is most likely because of favorable geographical conditions, said Alexander Velmozhko, the press secretary of the local Territorial Defense forces.

So Odessa, known in Ukraine for its residents’ unique sense of humor, is steeling itself for the worst.

In a new video posted on March 6, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russian forces are preparing to bomb Odessa. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Now’s not the time for jokes,” said Eduard Shevchenko, who works with the Park Kultury volunteer organization that cares for retirees and brought 86-year-old Olga Lyashenko some nonperishable foods on Friday afternoon.

Lyashenko uses a walker, so evacuating was a nonstarter, she said. The underground basement in her building that was being used to store trash has been cleaned out so it can be a bomb shelter. But her neighbor, also in her 80s, is not impressed. “It’s gross,” the neighbor commented.

When the air-raid sirens went off, neither woman made a move from the ninth-floor apartment to shelter.

“I grew up in war,” said Lyashenko, who was born in 1936 and remembers the World War II Romanian occupation of the city. The iconic Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater was nearly bombed then, she said. The building dates back to 1887, when this city was a showcase of Imperial Russia. It’s still standing, located just a few blocks from the beach, and is now surrounded by sandbags and antitank barricades.

In eastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv, a majority Russian-speaking city like Odessa, the opera theater was one of the buildings damaged in missile strikes on the city’s downtown.

“I’m crying all of the time,” said Odessa resident Kristina Botushan. “I have friends in the cities that have been attacked. What’s happening in them is hell.”

Ukraine’s shoreline has been a particular point of focus for Russia’s military.

Heavy fighting continues in Mariupol, the main port city in the Sea of Azov near Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The nearby port of Berdyansk is now in Russian hands.

Russian forces from the Crimean Peninsula advanced northeast to Melitopol and also northwest to Kherson, a city of about 300,000 people about 90 miles from Odessa.

While Ukraine has anti-ship missiles to defend the shore, the country’s naval fleet is considered a particular weak spot in its defense. It lost most of its ships when Russia seized a key base in 2014. The vessels it has now don’t have missiles. The navy has no modern frigates.

The pride of its fleet, the Hetman Sahaidachny flagship, was undergoing repairs in Mykolaiv, a port Russian forces are advancing on. The ship’s commander gave the order to sink it so it “would not be captured by the enemy,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote on Facebook.

“It is difficult to imagine a more tough decision for a brave warrior and the whole team,” Reznikov said. “But we will build a new fleet, modern and powerful. The main thing now is to resist.”

Odessa has spent days preparing to do just that.

The city’s 7 p.m. curfew is strict. Its downtown streets, known for stunning, delicate architecture, are now lined with stone barriers and antitank “hedgehogs” fashioned out of metal bars. Throughout the city, the now-famous response from the nearby Snake Island border guards — “Russian warship, go f--- yourself” — is posted on billboards around the city.

“The greeting, ‘Glory to Ukraine,’ has become the most common in Ukraine,” said Alexander Slavskiy, who headed a government fund 10 days ago but is now a soldier with the area’s Territorial Defense. “Before this, it wasn’t like that. The city is mobilizing. Everyone who wanted to leave, evacuated, but so many people stayed.”

As distant shelling could be heard from a small park in the Odessa’s downtown, a group of men went ahead with their regular games of chess and dominoes at tables outside. They won’t abandon their home, they said. But they’re scared of what they’re now sure is headed for this city.

“Chess is a peaceful game that forces you to think and be creative,” said 59-year-old Vladislav Vasytinski-Kazimir, who was born in Odessa. “It would be better if the militaries sat down at a chess table and figured things out instead of staring through a scope or firing missiles.”