Russia targets Ukraine’s biggest port city

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Western officials believe Russia is likely to launch another major offensive in Ukraine early next year, including a possible effort to advance on the strategically blockaded port city of Odessa, with the aim of seizing the coast. southwest of the country and to cut Ukraine off from the sea.

Odessa, a warm water port historically known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea”, is a key transit hub for Ukraine’s grain exports, which account for one-sixth of the world’s corn supplies and a eighth of the world’s wheat supply. 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 grip on critical global food supplies that have dwindled since the start. of the war.

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

Western officials believe Russia is likely to launch another major offensive in Ukraine early next year, including a possible effort to advance on the strategically blockaded port city of Odessa, with the aim of seizing the coast. southwest of the country and to cut Ukraine off from the sea.

Odessa, a warm water port historically known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea”, is a key transit hub for Ukraine’s grain exports, which account for one-sixth of the world’s corn supplies and a eighth of the world’s wheat supply. 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 grip on critical global food supplies that have dwindled since the start. of the war.

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

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

“Given the time that Ukraine has bought to fortify this southern area as the fighting continues further east and north, it is going to be difficult for the Russians to enter and take Odessa, especially with the Western defense systems that can keep the Russian Navy at bay,” said Jim Townsend, a former US Department of Defense official and now an expert on European security issues at the Center for a New American Security.

The new revelations about Russia’s war aims, described Foreign Police by four current and former US and European officials, comes as the White House issues new warnings about Russia’s plans to annex territories not only in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow sponsors potential breakaway states, but also in southern Ukraine. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia’s military objectives in Ukraine were no longer solely focused on the eastern regions, a sign that Russia could once again broaden its offensive.

“Russia is preparing the ground to annex Ukrainian territory under its control, in direct violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. Kirby said the Russian government is “examining detailed plans to allegedly annex a number of regions in Ukraine, including Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.”

Fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has stalled, with Ukrainian troops hardening their defensive positions after ceding most of Luhansk, while troops Russians are reorganizing for a push into Donetsk. Despite Moscow’s current focus on the region, US and European officials say they believe the Kremlin has set its sights on Odessa as a major strategic prize for the next phase of the war.

“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] understands that Kyiv is probably not possible for him to take. Odessa is probably the biggest goal,” said Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament from the Odessa 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 little Russian-backed breakaway state in Moldova, bordering Ukraine.

But Goncharenko, who is in Washington this week to pressure the United States to supply more arms to Ukraine, said Putin would not be able to launch an offensive against Odessa before the Russian troops have recovered from the Donbass campaign – and even then Russia will struggle to mobilize more forces. Russia attempted to encircle the port city from three sides early in the war, but was unable to reach the city overland as Ukrainian forces outside nearby Mykolaiv repelled assaults repeated.

Ukraine ceded only small amounts of land in the Donbass, officials said. Ukrainian forces have withdrawn after ceding most of Luhansk, and Russia is preparing for another offensive to take all of Donetsk, Donbass’ other major battleground.

If Russia were to seize a bit of southwestern Ukraine, like Odessa, where US officials warned the Kremlin was staging an amphibious assault in the early days of the war that never happened It would be “strategically disastrous” for Ukraine, current and former Western officials have warned. A capture of Odessa by Russia would cut Ukraine off from the rest of the Black Sea and leave it completely landlocked, unless Ukraine could retake the land seized by Russia since the start of the full-scale invasion of the country on February 24.

Concerns over another major Kremlin offensive come as Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and United Nations officials are expected to meet this week to allow Kyiv to restart Black Sea grain exports, with more than 20 million tonnes of foodstuffs stuck in the waterway, plus more than four months of supplies. Although the quartet has yet to find safe routes through the Black Sea maritime minefields, talks have “progressed quite far”, the Western official said, despite initial skepticism that Moscow would relent. US and Western officials have ruled out NATO help for such a mission, fearing an errant Russian missile strike could trigger the self-defense clause of the 30-nation alliance. Speaking at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov called for a UN-chartered mission to smuggle grain and oil out of Odessa.

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

“At some point we will have to make the decision to go for the less than perfect option,” a European official told reporters last month, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But everyone is working on it as fast as we humanly can.” Goncharenko, the Ukrainian parliamentarian, said Russia was benefiting from higher grain prices but faced pressure from southern countries, such as Egypt, which depends on Russia and Ukraine for more than 80% of its wheat, to put an end to the blockade.

The Kremlin has already made some of its most significant strategic gains of the war by cutting off Ukrainian troops from major waterways. Russia seized Mariupol, a major Ukrainian port on the Sea of ​​Azov, in May after besieging the city for two months, killing 22,000 and the former upper-middle-class urban enclave in ruins, taking the nearby port of Berdiansk en route. . Russia has also controlled the Crimean port of Sevastopol since its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The closures have also put an economic drag on Ukraine, with the World Bank predicting GDP will shrink by 45% this year.

But Ukraine responded, retaking Snake Island in the Black Sea by repeatedly using Western-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missiles to sink Russian supply ships in late June. The Pentagon believes this would give Ukraine an advantage in a potential assault on Odessa. “It’s not a panacea of ​​course, but it makes it much easier to defend Odessa and in the future the possibility of opening these sea lanes without Russia controlling Snake Island,” a senior official said. US Defense Department to reporters this month. .

Ukrainian military officials, fearing a longer war would favor Russia, quickly prepared a lightning counteroffensive to retake Kherson before winter, illuminating the Russian frontline with artillery strikes in recent days. But Kyiv is also concerned that it does not have enough firepower – in the form of multiple rocket launcher systems supplied by the United States and Europe – to do the job. On Wednesday, the United States announced that it plans to send four more HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) batteries to Ukraine as part of the latest package, bringing the total to 16, eight of which are already in Ukrainian hands. .

US and European officials have not said whether they plan to increase the pace of multiple rocket launches from the West, although they agree that Ukraine has reached the bar of judicious and effective use of rockets. precision-guided rockets in combat so far. Instead, the West tried to address Ukraine’s numerical disadvantage, with the British military pledging to train 10,000 new Ukrainian soldiers every 120 days outside the country. Ukraine has rushed to recruit more Western military trainers in the field, a request the United States is unwilling to accede to.

Yet Russia’s troop shortage is worsening as the Kremlin simultaneously attempts to bolster the initiative in Donbass and defend against Ukrainian counterattacks in Kherson, where the occupying army faces the threat of the Ukrainian regular army and a partisan uprising.

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


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