ODESA – From a side window of the National Academic Theatre, the sound of singing floats out: a rich baritone voice, accompanied by a piano. The opera company is rehearsing for upcoming performances of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Outside, a tour guide with an eight-seater buggy, rather like an oversize golf cart, touts for trade from the few tourists that remain: “Excursions! Catacombs! Langeron Beach!” Not far away lie the tank traps known as “hedgehogs” and barbed wire blocking the way to the port. The silos holding grain for export are just about visible from high ground, but the famous Potemkin Steps are off limits and the statue of the Duc de Richelieu, one of the city’s founding fathers, is invisible behind the stacks of sandbags protecting it against shrapnel.
Seven months after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the southern city of Odesa has become used to war. The blue and yellow stripes of the Ukrainian flag are painted on every other street corner. The recapture of several thousand square kilometres of territory in the north has boosted Ukrainians’ morale, as have the targeted attacks on Russian depots and bases around Kherson in the south. Russia has had the numerical advantage from the start, but it’s been outmanoeuvred by Ukrainian forces, with their superior training and strategy, not to mention the weapons from their allies.
In response, on 21 September, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilisation of at least 300,000 men, and threatened to use nuclear weapons. Ukraine shouldn’t panic but neither should it discount the threat, believes Volodymyr Dubovyk, director of the Centre for International Studies at Odesa Mechnikov National University. “If you put too many people, even slightly armed or not properly prepared, in some positions on the front line, that will be a new burden for Ukraine,” he told the New Statesman. “For us, it’s another reason to be mobilised, in various meanings of the word… I think the signs from both our political leadership and military command are, ‘Don’t be prepared for this war to be over soon.’”
Yet even with the most basic training, it will be a few weeks before the new Russian conscripts are on the front line. So Moscow is escalating in other ways. On 23 September and over the following days, so-called kamikaze drones supplied by Iran mounted five attacks on Odesa, striking a military installation and blowing up stocks of ammunition. Dubovyk said that, for now, Ukraine is ill-equipped to respond. “Hopefully we will find out something we can use against them,” he said, before adding “unfortunately the Russians might be happy”.
And then there’s the nuclear threat. In his speech calling for mobilisation, Putin also said Moscow would use all the means at its disposal, adding, “This is not a bluff.” The US has said any use of nuclear weapons would be met with catastrophic consequences. Russia’s military losses are mounting, but there’s little enthusiasm in Ukraine for giving in to Putin’s pressure and retreating.
“I don’t think [the threat] would work,” I was told by Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv. “This high-level communication between the US and Russia behind closed doors and talk about catastrophic consequences in public – I hope it would persuade Russia not to do what they were hinting at.”
Dubovyk also urged Ukraine’s Western allies not to waver and to continue supplying arms, with the aim of strengthening Kyiv’s position at any future negotiations. “If, God willing, we liberate all [Ukrainian] lands, great. If not, then still we need to liberate as much as we can right now. The momentum is there, we need to go forward and we need those weapons.”
Ukrainians have jeered at the images circulating on social media of Russians fleeing the call for mobilisation and queuing at the few land borders where they can still cross out of the country. Voicing open opposition to the war is an act of bravery in Russia, but Ukrainians’ sympathy is limited. The men being conscripted now will be reinforcing Russia’s troop numbers within weeks. The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has urged Russians to join the protests; he also used his speech at the UN General Assembly on 21 September to call for further military support from the West and to set up a war crimes tribunal.
Bielieskov told the New Statesman that Russian popular support for the war has always been shallow. However, “I’m not betting on [these] protests [to] stop this mobilisation, because Russians… lack dignity. They surrendered their country to the man who started this war, this madness.” Instead, he said, the mobilisation will fail because Russia lacks the “economic capacity to equip them, to train them, to provide them even with clothes, food, means of protection.”
Those who have lost their homes, their livelihoods and their safety to Russia’s war are equally defiant. At the main humanitarian aid point in Odesa, dozens of the displaced stand in a ragged queue, some clutching passports and documents. Roughly 500-700 families are registered here: they can receive food aid and other assistance, such as soap and cleaning products. Unicef is here, and World Central Kitchen; there’s also a Covid vaccination clinic.
Anastasiya arrived from Bakhmut, in the Donetsk oblast, in May and now volunteers at the aid point. Bakhmut has been under attack again recently: almost everyone has left the city, Anastasiya said, except her parents. She’s trying to get them out but it’s virtually impossible now. “I don’t understand what we have done for [Putin] to attack us,” she said, “but I think Ukrainians will remain united.”
Anya, who fled Mykolaiv, a city about 130 kilometres east of Odesa, at the end of April, agreed with Anastasiya’s sentiment. “Of course,” she said, “100 per cent we should fight.”