In the crosshairs – Odessa

April 19, 2014

There has been much speculation, rumour and conjecture within the media and amongst academic/think tank circles as to the extent of the Kremlin appetite with regard to Ukraine – naturally.  What is happening now on the continent of Europe has become very much a rarity thankfully – and yet not extinct unfortunately.

That speculation has ranged from the complete annexation of Ukraine, to full control through coercive methods, or the control and/or annexation of parts of the nation – either via federalisation before secession, simply establishing hard facts on the ground or de facto protectorates.


As far back as the end of November/early December rumours abound of The Kremlin attempting to reconstruct Novorussia – which as the above map circa 1897 shows, includes Odessa.

Now Mr Putin, and especialy the Kremlin propaganda machine, has on occasion been a little loose in interpretation and recollection of history at times recently, particularly when attempting to draw parallels in the Kremlin game of “whataboutism” .  The one thing that can be consistently said about “whataboutism” is that it never justifies or legitimises what is happening.  Using any previous wrong as an example to justify another wrong, needless to say, does not make either right.

It is why I am rather shy of using too many examples of comparative politics in entries – comparisons have their limits, no situation is the same – there are always nuances – and whether the comparison is good or poor, it always has a limited use in justification or legitimisation.

Nevertheless, Odessa like all the Novorussia Oblasts of by-gone days as remained consistently in the Kremlin crosshairs whichever scenario is to be played out.

Anyway, despite the very general joint communique emanating from within the bowels of Geneva – which makes you wonder over the devil in any detail as well as whether all parties are negotiating in good or bad faith – during President Putin’s 4 hour telethon, he made a few statements worthy of note.  Much of it was fluff, framing, propaganda and promises for the domestic Russian audience.

That domestic audience it should be recognised, has been prepared for conventional, economic, psychological, technical and religious war on a 24/7 basis increasingly over the past 2 or 3 months.  If it comes the Russian public will not be surprised.

A few statements made by President Putin are clearly of interest to Ukraine – and hopefully Europe and the wider western world in particular.

It was the first time I recall hearing Mr Putin use “Novorussia” in public – which he did repeatedly – and in a manner in which could – and did – infer a desire to rebuild it.

He also confirmed Russian special forces had been used in Crimea – but that is no revelation – simply confirmation of what everybody knew.

“The question is to ensure the rights and interests of the Russian southeast. It’s new Russia. Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows. Then for various reasons these areas were gone, and the people stayed there — we need to encourage them to find a solution.”

Now we can quibble over whether or not Luhansk and Kharkiv were ever in Novorussia, or whether they were in fact in Little Russia, but what’s the point.

To underline the point he was making somewhat, he also stated “I remind you that the Federation Council has given the president the right to use armed forces in Ukraine.  I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that by political and diplomatic means we will be able to solve all of the sharp problems.”

Ergo, no bite sized federalised Novorussia Oblasts for us to break of as and when we are ready, then I reserve the right to simply take them by force, would seem to be an interpretation many will make.

Of course, if the people of these cities decide not to make the choices seen as optimal to the Kremlin design for Ukraine – or at least the rebirth of the previously Novorussian parts of Ukraine which none other than Mr Putin himself has now clarified clearly as targets of Kremlin desire and therefore undoubted shenanigans, then “We must do everything to help these people to protect their rights and independently determine their own destiny.” – which will undoubtedly be understood as the Kremlin will make the right decision for them.

The questions for Odessa – as well as the other oblasts – is what form the coercion will take, when and for how long they can be endured.  To expect the same modus operandi without deviation as Crimea and as is currently unfolding in Luhansk and Donetsk would be a mistake.  It may come in that form – or it may manifest itself in a very different fashion.

To control the Odessa, Illychovsk and Yushni Ports is to control the Odessa economy.  And to control the ports there is no need to actually be stood dockside.  It can be done via sea blockade just as easily – Yes, that is an act of war, but so was the annexation of Crimea.

The few Ukrainian naval ships now in Odessa?  Whether they would fight or not is a secondary question as to whether they would be allowed to fight by the Ukrainian authorities.  The NATO ships in the Black Sea are clearly unlikely to engage.

Whether the well meaning anti-“little green man” sandbagged checkpoints appearing on the outskirts of Odessa are equipped to prevent anything meaningful trundling into the city from Transnistria (or elsewhere) is also another relevant question.  As yet I have not peered behind them to see what equipment hides behind – if any.

As for the people of Odessa themselves – or the social media savvy amongst them at least – well numerous secret facebook groups, membership of and accessible by invitation only have appeared over the past month or so – both pro a united Ukraine and also federal/Russian leaning.

I didn’t even know there were such things as secret facebook groups until recently.  I am seriously IT retarded and socially challenged quite clearly.

Reading the content of both for and against camps, it seems self-organisation and planning is becoming somewhat more advanced than any policies seen coming from Kyiv with regard the city.

That there seem to be no overt policies coming from Kyiv with regard Odessa may well be doing Kyiv a disservice of course.  They may necessarily be currently kept from the public realm – at least you would hope that is the case, and a strategic plan for Odessa is not to be hurriedly scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet once the shenanigans begin.

Anyway, it seems the oblasts that made up Novorussia have now clearly been identified as Kremlin targets by President Putin himself.  With the “where” “why” and “who” answered – we in Odessa need only think about the “what”, “when” and “how”.

Whether there is any tangible results from the declarations made from Geneva yesterday we have to accept will not change the overall Kremlin goal.

The question of whether the Ukrainian people will accept any deal made would be accepted without further civil unrest is also yet to be asked or answered.

Any new elections are not going to return a Ukrainian president that will advance any Kremlin plan.  Any vote on the unity vis a vis federalisation of Ukraine is also unlikely to produce the federally desired Kremlin results.  Any new RADA elections seem unlikely to return an eastern favouring majority at the time of writing either.

Thus the Kremlin is still faced with only 3 options to retain significant influence over Ukraine – Annexation in part or in full, continued insurgency and destabilisation, or forcing the complete collapse of Ukraine as a State.  For Ukraine it seems it faces the outcome of whether the Kremlin choice is one of coercion via a slow Chinese water torture, or one of rapid forceful violation.

Allowing Ukraine to head westward without significant resistance – if allowing it at all – is not a Kremlin option.  Ergo working on the premise, any pauses for negotiation agreed to by The Kremlin will be done so with a view to mitigating the threats toward it either directly or via third parties – whilst its goal remains the same.

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