Nowhere in Ukraine did Russia’s invasion go as planned, but a combination of geography, better troops, shorter supply lines and weaker opposition means the Moscow campaign has enough progressed south to show what Russian President Vladimir Putin had at least planned.
The rapid capture of the cities of Melitopol, Berdyansk and Kherson has allowed Russian forces to begin implementing what looks like a blueprint for the declared war aims – repeated on Wednesday by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – of “demilitarization and “denazification” of Ukraine.
The two sides also signaled on Wednesday that they were moving towards a potential ceasefire agreement, even as major differences remain and Putin gave a televised speech on the ‘self-cleansing’ power of the current events for Russia that offered few obvious reasons for hope.
After initial gains, the Russian army’s southern advance met resistance in Mariupol, Ukraine’s easternmost port city, and Mykolaiv, the gateway to Odessa. to the west, where the wide estuary of the River Bug forms a natural defensive barrier.
Still, a Russian breakthrough to take the entire coastline “would be a disaster for Ukraine, because 70% of our exports go by sea, 90% of our grain,” said Hanna Shelest, director of security programs at the Council of foreign policy in Odessa. “Ukrainian prism.”
Beyond the economic and political importance of controlling Ukraine’s access to seaports, Russia could also secure a land bridge between Crimea – the peninsula that Putin annexed from Ukraine in 2014 – and the Russian mainland, opening rail links for logistics and freeing up a substantial manpower to support military objectives elsewhere.
No less important is the political and propaganda importance of the region. Novorossiya, or New Russia – the imperial-era name for southern and eastern Ukraine – is central to Putin’s rhetoric that the two countries are one Russian nation.
In the early days of the invasion, Russian expectations seemed to come true. His forces left Crimea on the morning of February 24 with little opposition, and over the next 10 days traversed approximately 500 kilometers (311 miles) of coastline.
“The Russian army that came from Belarus in the north is essentially the B team, while the more elite elements of the army that came from northeast of Kyiv and the south performed better,” said General Richard Barrons, who retired as Commander of United Kingdom Joint Forces Command in 2016. “They were also on easier and more open ground and had the big advantage of shorter supply lines , with a firm footing on the ground in Crimea.”
On February 26, Russian troops entered Melitopol, about 130 km northeast of Crimea. A day later it was Berdyansk, 120 km to the west. On March 3, it was the turn of Kherson, 130 km northwest of Crimea, and with a population of 280,000, the only major Ukrainian city to fall to Russian troops to date.
The treatment of these towns, as well as some smaller southern towns, appears to have followed a pattern. First, they were secured by the army. Then units of Rosgvardia – a well-armed gendarmerie that performs a role similar to Soviet-era special police – moved in. Russian flags have replaced Ukrainian flags in major administrative centers.
In Melitopol, mayor-elect Ivan Fedorov was abducted and taken through the town square by soldiers, according to still images released by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office.
Fedorov was replaced by Halyna Danylchenko, a willing local politician. In a video address, she asked citizens to accept “the new reality” and stop “extremist” acts, an apparent reference to the protests.
In Kherson, local politician Serhiy Khlan said house-to-house searches were being carried out as part of a hunt for security officials, journalists and pro-Ukrainian activists, which Shelest said friends in Kherson had also told him.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia was trying to hold a referendum to declare a “Kherson People’s Republic”, analogous to the breakaway people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk further east. The Russian authorities have yet to confirm such a proposal.
On Wednesday, Putin said the “special military operation” he had ordered in Ukraine was going to be planned, but even in the south that seems unlikely. Far from waving their own Russian flags, thousands of people gather daily in Kherson to protest against the occupation. In Berdyansk, smaller crowds chanted “go home”. In Melitopol, protesters clashed with Russian soldiers on March 14 as they demanded Fedorov’s return.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s presidential office said Fedorov was freed in a special operation. He then posted a video clip of Zelenskyy allegedly speaking to the mayor of Melitopol in an audio call.
Mariupol, meanwhile, risks acquiring the totemic status of Vukovar or Sarajevo during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, sieges whose destruction and cruelty sparked outrage across much of the world and ultimately contributed more forceful international intervention. Thousands of civilians fled Mariupol this week. The city’s theater, used as a bomb shelter by hundreds, was destroyed on Wednesday. Russia has denied responsibility and says it does not target civilians.
Odessa will present an even greater challenge for Russian commanders, as it holds a special place in the Russian historical and cultural imagination. So far, perhaps as a result, it has been spared the aerial bombardment suffered by other towns.
The city of just over a million people has traditionally had a large pro-Russian population, but while that support remains, it has yet to show. Instead, Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, who had a Russian passport until 2017, denounced the Russian attack and led volunteers as they filled sandbags and made tank traps.
“They really hoped that Odessa would raise the Russian flag,” Shelest said. “Now it has to be aggression and it’s not something easy for them to bear, either psychologically or militarily.”
The Russian army will first have to overtake Mykolaiv and move the remaining 130 km to Odessa. Multiple efforts to break through or bypass the city so far have ended in failure.
And while Russian landing craft have gathered off the Black Sea coast in Odessa several times over the past two weeks as if to attack, a landing at sea would be difficult. Suitable beaches have been mined and are being defended, Shelest said. Upon reaching the city, everything indicates that the Russian troops should fight their way.
Separating Ukraine from the Black Sea to the south is likely to remain a major strategic goal for Russia as long as the fighting continues, according to Barrons, now president of Universal Defense & Security Solutions, a strategic consultancy of former military officers. While wary of the firepower Russia still has, he was skeptical that anything like Putin’s original plan for Ukraine was still feasible.
“It’s an occupation that will never work,” Barrons said, and the reasons Putin is looking for a ramp out multiply. The question for Odessa and other cities, he added, is how far a frustrated Putin will be willing to go, including options such as chemical weapons or ethnic cleansing, in his bid to control Ukraine.
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Vladimir Putin, Russian-Ukrainian War