Russia Has Its Sights on Odesa

Moscow doesn’t just want to gobble up Ukraine’s east.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Anti-tank obstacles line a street in Odesa on March 13.
Anti-tank obstacles line a street in Odesa on March 13.
Anti-tank obstacles line a street in Odesa on March 13. Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Western officials believe that Russia will likely begin another major offensive in Ukraine early next year, including a possible effort to advance on the blockaded strategic port city of Odesa, in an effort to seize the country’s southwestern coast and cut off Ukraine from the sea.

Odesa, a warm water port historically known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” is a critical transit hub for Ukraine’s grain exports, which account for one-sixth of global corn supplies and one-eighth of global wheat supplies. If Russian forces were to take the port, current and former officials warn, it would represent a devastating blow to Ukraine’s war efforts and give Moscow a greater stranglehold over critical global food supplies that have dwindled since the war began.

“The assumption is that they could face another very serious Russian offensive next year,” said one Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing intelligence assessments. “And we need to do everything we can to give them not just the equipment but also the people—fresh people, well-trained people—to try and ride that out.”

Western officials believe that Russia will likely begin another major offensive in Ukraine early next year, including a possible effort to advance on the blockaded strategic port city of Odesa, in an effort to seize the country’s southwestern coast and cut off Ukraine from the sea.

Odesa, a warm water port historically known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” is a critical transit hub for Ukraine’s grain exports, which account for one-sixth of global corn supplies and one-eighth of global wheat supplies. If Russian forces were to take the port, current and former officials warn, it would represent a devastating blow to Ukraine’s war efforts and give Moscow a greater stranglehold over critical global food supplies that have dwindled since the war began.

“The assumption is that they could face another very serious Russian offensive next year,” said one Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing intelligence assessments. “And we need to do everything we can to give them not just the equipment but also the people—fresh people, well-trained people—to try and ride that out.”

Yet Ukraine’s stiff resistance, coupled with vital military aid from the West and Moscow’s own military blunders, means it’s far from certain that Russian forces could capture Odesa even if that becomes a top priority in the next phase of the war.

“Given the time that Ukraine has bought to fortify that southern area while the fighting is going on further east and north, it’s going to be hard for the Russians to go in and take Odesa, particularly with Western defense systems that can keep the Russian Navy at bay,” said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. Defense Department official and now expert on European security issues with the Center for a New American Security.

The new revelations on Russia’s war aims, described to Foreign Policy by four current and former U.S. and European officials, come as the White House issues new warnings over Russia’s plans to annex territory not just in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow sponsors breakaway would-be statelets, but in the south of Ukraine as well. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia’s military goals in Ukraine were no longer focused solely on the eastern regions, a sign that Russia could again widen its offensive.

“Russia is laying the groundwork to annex Ukrainian territory that it controls, in direct violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. Kirby said the Russian government is “reviewing detailed plans to purportedly annex a number of regions in Ukraine, including Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.”

The fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has bogged down into a stalemate, with Ukrainian troops hardening their defensive positions after ceding most of Luhansk, while Russian troops refit for a push into Donetsk. Despite Moscow’s current focus on the region, U.S. and European officials say they believe the Kremlin has set its sights on Odesa as the major strategic prize for the next phase of the war.

“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] understands that Kyiv probably isn’t possible for him to take. Odesa is probably the biggest aim,” said Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament from the Odesa region. “He wants to cut Ukraine off from the sea. He needs this northern part of the Black Sea. He wants this corridor to Transnistria,” he added, referring to a narrow, Russian-backed breakaway statelet in Moldova bordering Ukraine.

But Goncharenko, who is in Washington this week lobbying for the United States to supply more weapons to Ukraine, said Putin would not be able to undertake any offensive against Odesa until after Russian troops recuperate from the Donbas campaign—and even then, Russia will struggle to mobilize more forces. Russia tried to encircle the port city from three sides early in the war but was unable to reach the city by land, as Ukraine’s forces outside nearby Mykolaiv have held off repeated assaults.

Ukraine has been giving up only small amounts of ground in the Donbas, the officials said. Ukrainian forces have retreated after ceding most of Luhansk, and Russia is gearing up for another offensive to take the entirety of Donetsk, the other major battlefield in the Donbas.

If Russia were to snatch up a bit of Ukraine’s southwest, such as Odesa, where U.S. officials warned of the Kremlin staging an amphibious assault in the early days of the war that never came, it would be “strategically disastrous” for Ukraine, current and former Western officials warned. A Russian capture of Odesa would cut off Ukraine from the rest of the Black Sea and leave it completely landlocked—unless Ukraine is able to take back ground seized by Russia since the start of the full-scale invasion of the country on Feb. 24.

The concerns over another major Kremlin offensive come as Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and United Nations officials are likely set to meet this week to allow Kyiv to restart Black Sea grain exports, with more than 20 million tons of foodstuffs stranded in the waterway, more than four months of supplies. Although the quartet has yet to figure out safe routes through maritime minefields in the Black Sea, talks have gotten “quite a long way down the track,” the Western official said, despite initial skepticism that Moscow would cave. U.S. and Western officials have ruled out using NATO to assist in such a mission, fearing that an errant Russian missile strike could trigger the 30-nation alliance’s self-defense clause. Speaking at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov called for a U.N.-chartered mission to get grain and oil out of Odesa.

Another Russian offensive, especially one targeting Odesa, would likely jeopardize any port deal and leave some of the world’s most populous countries that are dependent on Ukrainian grain exports—such as Bangladesh, Egypt, and Pakistan—in dire straits. The Biden administration has also examined options to move Ukrainian grain out of the country by rail, including shipping it to the Danube River and other transshipment points, options that would not provide the same amount of volume.

“At some point, we will have to make a decision to go with the less-than-perfect option,” a European official told reporters last month, speaking on background on condition of anonymity. “But everybody is working on this as fast as we humanly can.” Goncharenko, the Ukrainian parliamentarian, said Russia was benefiting from higher grain prices but faced pressure from countries in the global south, such as Egypt, which relies on Russia and Ukraine for more than 80 percent of its wheat, to end the blockade.

The Kremlin has already made some of its most important strategic gains of the war by cutting Ukrainian troops off from key waterways. Russia seized Mariupol, a major Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov, in May after besieging the city for two months, leaving 22,000 people dead and the once upper-middle-class urban enclave in ruins, taking the nearby port of Berdiansk along the way. Russia has also controlled the Crimean port of Sevastopol since its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The shutdowns have also put an economic drubbing on Ukraine, with the World Bank predicting that GDP will decline by 45 percent this year.

But Ukraine has responded, retaking Snake Island in the Black Sea by repeatedly using Western-provided Harpoon anti-ship missiles to sink Russian resupply vessels in late June. The Pentagon believes that would give Ukraine an advantage in a potential assault on Odesa. “This isn’t a panacea of course, but it does make it a lot easier to defend Odesa and in the future to be able to open up those sea lanes without Russia controlling Snake Island,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters this month.

Ukrainian military officials, concerned that a longer war could favor Russia, have been rapidly preparing a lightning counteroffensive to retake Kherson before winter, lighting up the Russian front line with artillery strikes in recent days. But Kyiv is also concerned that it lacks enough firepower—in the form of U.S.- and European-provided multiple launch rocket systems—to get the job done. On Wednesday, the United States said it planned to send four more High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) batteries to Ukraine as part of the latest package, bringing the total to 16, eight of which are already in Ukrainian hands.

U.S. and European officials have been mum on whether they plan to increase the pace of multiple launch rockets from the West, although they agree that Ukraine has met the bar of using the precision-guided rockets judiciously and effectively in combat so far. Instead, the West has tried to address Ukraine’s numbers disadvantage, with the British military pledging to train 10,000 new Ukrainian troops every 120 days outside the country. Ukraine has been eager to get more Western military trainers on the ground, a demand that the United States is unwilling to accede to.

Yet Russia’s shortages of troops are getting more acute as the Kremlin tries to simultaneously press the initiative in the Donbas and defend against Ukrainian counterattacks in Kherson, where the occupying army has to deal with the threat of Ukraine’s regular military and a partisan uprising.

“I think that several months will not be enough for [Putin] to regroup,” said Goncharenko, the Ukrainian parliamentarian. “He will need more time.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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