Eight days after the start of the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s invading army is trying to achieve one of its main strategic objectives, the conquest of the south of the country and ensure Russia’s access to the Black Sea. At the same time, it would deprive the Ukrainians of access to the sea, thus cutting off both their stockpiling of supplies and reinforcements and the flow of their economy abroad.
Without stopping the attack on the two most important cities in the country -on the northern front, trying to surround the capital, Kiev, and from the northeast front towards Kharkov-, the Russian offensive has intensified this week in several southern cities from Ukraine. First it was Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov. The troops then entered Kherson, the first major city to come under Russian control. And the siege continues on Mariupol, the main port of the inland sea of Azov.
From Kherson, the Russian invaders seek to advance first towards Mykolaiv and then towards Odessa, the seaport of reference in Ukraine. The ultimate objective is to build a land corridor between the Donbass region, the annexed Crimean peninsula and, beyond, the entire Black Sea coast, while with the other hand it negotiates a humanitarian corridor with Ukraine.
‘Red’ spreads across the map and, after initial failures, Russia moves on to its next targets. However, as we analyze the advance of the Russian troops, it is important to keep in mind that entering a city is not the same as conquering it, and that the Army moves freely through a territory does not mean that it is under its control. As Professor Emeritus of War Studies Lawrence Freedman recalled this week, “control is a political concept, not a military one”.
Russian advances on the southern Ukrainian front
Since the beginning of the week, the siege of the Russian army has hung over Mariupol (446,000 inhabitants), the objective of two different fronts: one from the Crimea and the other from the Donbas. Russian troops claim to have surrounded the city in a ring around the entire Sea of Azov, which Moscow wants to turn into an inland sea to ensure the security of the naval base of Sevastopolin Crimea.
The mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, said that they have suffered many civilian victims after a few days of intense bombing against power plants and that they have suffered the cut off of the water supply in several neighborhoods, a measure of pressure to force the evacuation of its inhabitants. , deprived of electricity, water and heating, and the capitulation of the city, which already resisted the pro-Russian separatist offensive in 2014. The councilor assures that “the soldiers of Putin’s horde constantly hammer the city and do not allow us to evacuate the wounded, Women and children”.
On Thursday, March 3, the Russians claimed to have Kherson under their control, with 300,000 inhabitants, so it would be the first city to be conquered. On the shore of the Black Sea and next to the Dnieper River, it is one of the strategic objectives for the Kremlin due to its proximity to the Crimean peninsula, unilaterally annexed by Russia in 2014, and to the important port of Odessa. The invading troops have advanced from there with the intention of coming together with the pro-Russian militias and the rest of the troops advancing from the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
The Ukrainian Army now hopes that the Russians will hit the port of Berdyansk and the cities of Zaporizhia and melitopol. In this city of some 155,000 inhabitants, unarmed civilians took to the streets to stand up to Russian soldiers, calling them “invaders” and asking them to leave.
If they manage to connect those cities with Kherson, and after that take their turn Mykolayiv (500,000 inhabitants) and about 60 kilometers from Kherson, where Russian combat forces have already been directed, the next target would be Odessa, the main Ukrainian port and the base of its Navy.
“They want to destroy our Odessa, but the only thing they will see is the bottom of the Black Sea,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski, who celebrates the resistance of his compatriots.
Why is the Black Sea so important?
The Black Sea, with an area of 436,400 square kilometers, is located between Western Asia and Eastern Europe and is surrounded by six countries: Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Romania and Bulgariathese last two members of the European Union and NATO, an alliance of which Turkey is also a member.
Its importance lies in its position, connecting with the Sea of Marmara through the Bosphorus Strait and with the Aegean Sea through the Dardanelles Strait, keys to the control of transport and the movement of goods.
Since annexing Crimea, Russia has been trying to extend its territorial rule over the Black Sea, which gives him an immediate strategic advantage in this war and, in the longer term, allows him to expand his influence in neighboring territories. Especially moldovawhose president has formally requested that the country be a candidate to enter the European Union, as Georgia and Ukraine itself have also done, fearing that it will be Russia’s next military target.
Control over ports and trade routes would give Putin the power to obstruct trade and energy supplies, in a territory through which a large number of energy transport pipelines pass.
Since the beginning of the invasion, attempts have been made to prevent the Black Sea, an area where ships circulate, from becoming a scene of battle. Turkey announced on February 28 that it was closing the Bosphorus Strait to the passage of military ships from all countries, in application of the Montreux Convention, which has regulated traffic in the area since 1936. However, ships based in the Black Sea, such as those from Russia or the Ukraine, to return to their ports.
Putin’s target for years
Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s interest in control of southern Ukraine and the Black Sea began before the current conflict. When the Ukrainians deposed their pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in early 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, backing separatists who seized territory in eastern Ukraine, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
And in Putin’s imperialist pretensions, these territories constituted not only a long-awaited exit to the sea, but also the start of a campaign of conquest to unite Crimea with the Donbass regiona corridor that would constitute a great geopolitical triumph for the Russian president.
If Russian troops manage to link Mariupol and Melitopol with Kherson, then the next target would be Odessa, which is also the base of the Ukrainian Navy. Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov on Thursday called the Odessa area “the hottest” in the war with Russia.
Odessa, the pearl of the Black Sea
Odessa, known as the pearl of the Black Sea, is the third largest city in Ukraine, with a population of one million. Conquering it would give Russia a great military advantage and would be a serious blow to the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, because it would mean separating Ukraine from the Black Sea coast, from which a multitude of very valuable resources can be extracted, and its main line of communication with the rest of the world.
Gaining control of supplies and suffocating the Ukrainians’ ability to resist is now a key objective of the Russian offensive, as the strategy of overthrowing the government in Kiev with a lightning and definitive attack has not worked. It is the same reason why the Russian military has attacked the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, the largest in the country and in Europe, on which much of the electricity supply in a Ukraine highly dependent on nuclear energy depends.
However, Russia will not have anything easy to do with Odessa. Its inhabitants have organized themselves to build a barrier with sandbags and set up defensive positions to prevent the entry of the Russian fleet into the Black Sea. They already have experience in self-defense: in 2014 a separatist uprising was put down there that sought to create an independent state and that caused harsh clashes with Ukrainian nationalists, resulting in the burning of a union building on the outskirts and the death of 36 pro-Russians.
In addition, in recent days, storms in the area have hindered the encirclement maneuvers of the Russian forces. And meanwhile, volunteers gather help for the Ukrainian soldiers. On the beaches for which Odessa is famous, the inhabitants fill bags with sand and hand them over to the Territorial Defense Forces so that they blockade the city, reports the Efe news agency.