When Russia sent hypersonic missiles into a shopping center in Ukraine’s elegant port city of Odesa on Monday, it was literally attacking the world.
Ukraine is known as the “breadbasket of Europe” and a global grain exporter. Eighty percent of its wheat used to ship from Odesa until Russia began blockading this major Black Sea port and targeting its civilians. Russia’s assault is the cause of soaring wheat prices that threaten starvation for many of the world’s poorest people, especially in the Middle East and Africa.
Moscow has already seized control of most of Ukraine’s coastline, including Mariupol’s port on the Sea of Azov. Smashing Odesa would virtually land-lock the country and destroy its international economy. With its maritime blockade of Odesa, Russia now controls nearly the entire northern coast of the Black Sea, contrary to international conventions.
“We didn’t have a plan for Mariupol and it fell,” retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, a former NATO commander, told me recently. “We still have time now to ensure Odesa doesn’t fall, leading to a landlocked Ukrainian nation. What is our plan?”
The answer to that question — what is the plan to save Odesa? — is essential to much of the world.
I put this question by WhatsApp to Oleksiy Goncharenko, Ukraine’s parliamentary representative in Kyiv, who is an Odesa native. It is essential, he said, to understand Vladimir Putin’s hypocrisy when it comes to Odesa.
“Vladimir Putin thinks the aim of his life is to protect Russian-speaking people,” Goncharenko told me, “but after Hitler, no one has killed so many Russian speakers as Putin has in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Odesa, and other Ukrainian cities.”
Never mind that the Kremlin leader seems willing to destroy Odesa — a stunning city of glorious architectural jewels — which was founded in 1794 on the orders of Russia’s Catherine the Great, who is a heroine of Putin’s.
“He realizes he can’t take Odesa by land [Ukrainian forces have successfully resisted], so he tries to destroy the infrastructure,” said Goncharenko. “Even as Putin was laying flowers on May 9 in Moscow, in honor of Odesa as a World War II hero city, he was putting a dagger in the back of Odesa with missiles.”
It boggles the mind that Putin still seems to believe some Russian speakers will welcome him in Odesa. The Russian leader attempted the same approach during his first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when he tried to provoke unrest in Odesa. I was there at the time and witnessed the Russian-speaking inhabitants repel provocateurs from Moscow.
This time, said Goncharenko, it is the world’s moral responsibility “to secure the Black Sea [and Odesa] in order to secure world food supplies.”
“More and more people are suffering from hunger because of the Russian blockage of the Black Sea,” he continued. “It will get worse, along with prices. Hunger leads to unrest and riots.
“Russia has mined the Black Sea,” he also noted, causing insurance rates on commercial ships that enter the Black Sea to soar prohibitively.
The solution? “We need to have convoys under the flag of the United Nations which can take grain to those who need it,” contended Goncharenko. The best option “would be an international declaration of guarantee of safety for Black Sea ports.” He suggested that China (a big purchaser of Ukrainian grain), India, NATO, or a group of willing countries could guarantee the safety of the Odesa port and its export of agricultural goods.
Is this idea a pipe dream? Not so, said retired U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO. “A good model,” he said, “was Operation Earnest Will, when the United States conducted escort convoys to merchant ships in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.”
This time, Stavridis said, the idea would be to establish “a corridor from Istanbul across the Black Sea to Odesa.” He added he thinks “the Russians would hesitate to interfere, particularly if it was done by the U.S. or by three NATO members or put together by the International Maritime Organization.”
But in the meantime, it is essential to protect Odesa from Putin’s callous efforts to destroy the city from the air.
“We still need anti-ship missiles,” said Goncharenko. Yes, talented Ukrainians took out the Russian flagship Moskva with their own improvised Neptune missile, “but it would be very good to have Harpoons, a NATO missile.” Promised British anti-ship missiles will hopefully arrive soon. Yet there is no excuse for continued U.S. delay in helping Odesa fend off the Russian fleet with Harpoons.
And long-range anti-missile systems — either old Soviet systems or, even better, U.S. Patriot batteries, which Ukraine has begged for for months — are still not arriving. Nor are Poland’s MiG-29 planes or more modern aircraft.
The moment is now. Does the West want Odesa’s infrastructure to be destroyed, its food supplies blockaded? Or not?
Read the tweet of Charles Michel, president of the European Council, who was visiting Odesa the day the missiles hit: “I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export. This badly needed food is stranded because of the Russian … blockade of Black Sea ports. Causing dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries. We need a global response.”
Where is the plan?