Those of us who didn’t think a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would happen are left looking at maps for clues to the future of the conflict. Now that Mariupol has fallen, after a few thousand Ukrainian fighters held out for months in a surrounded steel plant under unspeakable conditions, Moscow controls all of “Pryazovia,” the region between the Donbas and Crimea. Despite the recent slowdown, Putin’s forces have effectively blockaded all of Ukraine’s coast and likely mined the territorial waters between Crimea and Odessa. They will eventually try to conquer the Odessa region bordering Moldova and Romania. The next step could be intensified Russian missile strikes from the sea, followed by an amphibious raid or an advance of land forces west from Kherson.
In early 2014, as Russia’s campaign of annexation and hybrid war in Ukraine picked up pace, Putin made the public statement that southern Ukraine was really “Novorossiya,” a sort of truncation of “New Russia” with an atypical stress on the third “o.” Novorossiya, a project of Empress Catherine the Great launched in the late 18th century, involved abolishing the vassal Ukrainian “Hetmanate” state in 1781, breaking it up into Russian imperial governorates, and deporting its surviving non-Russian inhabitants to the steppes of southern Russia. The Russian despot had taken control of the Ottoman-allied Crimean Khanate in 1774, absorbed the peninsula into the empire, and begun steadily demolishing its Tatar presence to make way for Russian architecture. Odessa was founded in 1794 as Novorossiya’s capital.
In Putin’s mind, Novorossiya is an extension of the ethnocentric statehood model he personifies. Citing discrimination against ethnic Russians to formally justify bellicosity about domestic politics in Russia’s “near abroad,” he has distracted the world from the real policy controversy over Russian ethnicity in Ukraine, namely, the innocuous question of whether the ex-Soviet republic should have one “official language” or two. In fact, people in Ukraine have spoken Russian since independence without reluctance or resentment, even under conditions of war. Russian remains a lingua franca in much of Ukraine, including Odessa, even if TV and other media are in Ukrainian.
The irony of Odessa in Putin’s ethnocentric vision lies in the fact that it is not merely a weak model of Russian identity; it is actually a microcosm of the Novorossiyan melting pot. Catherine II named Odessa after the ancient Greek ruins of Odessos, east of the city along the coast, and feminized the name in her own honor. She provided the money for the city's construction (on the site of an old Ottoman fortress dating to when the Turks and Poles fought constantly in the area) to a Dutch engineer. She appointed the Duc de Richelieu (great-nephew of the cardinal), a Frenchman in self-imposed exile from the guillotines, as governor of Odessa and eventually all of Novorossiya. Anna Reid, in her brief history of Ukraine, Borderland, writes of the émigré duke:
Offering cheap land, religious toleration and exemption from military service, he attracted persecuted minorities from all over Europe and the empire. From the south came Bulgars, Serbs, Moldovans, Greeks and Armenians, from the north Jews; from the west Swiss and hard-working Mennonite Germans; from the east dissenting Molokans, Dukhobars and Old Believers. By 1817, when there was no more virgin land to be given away, Richelieu was able to report [to Emperor Alexander I] that ‘Never, Sire, in any part of the world, have there been nations so different in manners, language, customs and dress living within so restricted a space.’
It is unclear how such mixing of nationalities fits into Putin's worldview. On the one hand, the Russian Federation is a smorgasbord of nations and ethnicities; on the other, these are delineated by their own territorial-administrative units within the patchwork Russian state. Novorossiya, epitomized by its biggest city, is a sort of odd man out in the post-Soviet Russian state. It can’t be an ethnic unit, and worse, Putin can’t argue that re-forging Novorossiya amounts to rescuing ethnic Russians in Ukraine without conceding an objective of reestablishing centralized, absolutist Russian rule there. Novorossiya is a historical construct of Russian autocracy, and Odessa was multi-ethnic from its inception. Without the support of a despotic government, built into Novorossiya are the seeds of its own demise.
In the fall of 2014, I found locals more inclined to blame the Kremlin for the war than residents of the Donbas were. Odessa natives resented Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and they grumbled about the government in Kyiv at much lower volume than their eastern compatriots did. In May, marches for and against Ukraine’s federalization had clashed in the city, culminating in an inferno and over forty deaths. Russia’s security services are still widely suspected as the most likely provocateurs in the unsolved atrocity.
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Though one of Ukraine’s four Soviet “hero cities” (along with Kiev, Sevastopol, and Kerch), Odessa offers little outward sense of Russophones languishing in discontent over the oppressive nature of Ukrainian nationalism, awaiting liberation from the Muscovite tsar. It is a city of pretty, tree-lined cobblestone boulevards and grand historic buildings, including world heritage sites now sadly threatened by Russian attack. UNESCO is not designed to be a vanguard of worry for the fate of civilian lives, but the Russian military’s destruction of a beautiful city is still a perennial concern.
If their actions elsewhere are anything to go by, Russian forces tend to advance on a population center and destroy residential areas and civilian infrastructure. They then set about implementing an occupation regime amid the rubble, where the occupiers face no local opposition because everyone has either fled or been deported. While the usual barrage of Grad and other missiles raining down on Odessa might allow Russian marines to land on the region’s beaches or the army to advance by land from the east, the operation would likely be crudely destructive. Putin’s forces might win the metropolis, but their victory would be Pyrrhic if the jewel in the Novorossiyan crown lay in ruins.