Ukraine’s largest port is its strongest link to the world economy
ODESSA’S STREETS bustle again, but occasional missile strikes belie any sense of normality. The ornate stone buildings of its historic centre are bolstered by sandbags. Few people venture to the beach for a dip in the Black Sea, which is now heavily mined, and a 10pm curfew keeps the roughly 500,000 residents who have not fled indoors at night. For now the city breathes a sigh of relief; Russia has scaled back the ambition of its invasion and is concentrating on the east. But worse could still come. Odessa has enormous tactical, symbolic and economic significance. For the rest of the world the fate of the port will determine the severity of a growing food crisis. Why is so much at stake in Odessa?
Dubbed a “pearl by the sea”, Ukraine’s third-largest city was once a jewel of the Russian empire. It was founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great and gained prominence as a commercial centre and retreat for writers (Chekhov reportedly gorged himself on ice cream in the city, and Pushkin spent 13 months there). Its historical significance has perhaps helped shield the city centre from the worst of Russian attacks, unlike Mariupol, the largest port on the Sea of Azov, 500km to the east. As with much of eastern Ukraine, Odessa’s population is largely Russian-speaking, though the war has bolstered its Ukrainian identity.
Odessa is economically crucial too. Black Sea ports, including Odessa, two others close by (Pivdennyi and Chornomorsk) and Mykolaiv to the east, handled more than 70% of Ukraine’s exports before the war. Russia’s Black Sea blockade and Ukraine’s defensive mining of its waters have stopped all shipments, including those of wheat, of which Ukraine was the world’s fifth-largest exporter. That has helped to push wheat prices up by more than 50% this year. On May 24th Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, accused Russia of using hunger as a weapon. Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter in 2021, has profited from the near-record high prices. And it is now using the shortage as a bargaining chip, offering to unblock ports in exchange for the West lifting sanctions.
Pressure to reopen the Black Sea ports will only grow. A new harvest will begin in around a month, but Ukraine lacks the space to store what it reaps. According to Slawomir Matuszak of the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Warsaw-based think-tank, the coming season will bring in 30m tonnes of crops for export, on top of 20m tonnes already in silos. That adds up to roughly 50 times more than the country exported in the past month. Alternative routes by rail and road can carry only a fraction of the usual exports, and at a much greater freight cost than via sea. World leaders are desperately looking for ways to release Ukraine’s exports, so far to no avail.
For now Russia is focusing its military efforts in the eastern Donbas region. But it has stamped out the last embers of resistance in Mariupol, and some fear it could revive its threat. One way of doing that would be for Russia's army to advance west via Mykolaiv, 130km away, through Odessa towards Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova that it has also been eyeing. Russian missiles have mostly targeted infrastructure, including in multiple attacks on the city’s airport and nearby Zatoka Bridge, which has been the main route for supplies coming in from Romania. But they have also hit residential buildings and shopping centres. An amphibious attack seems unlikely. Seizing the city would be the toughest part of a Russian push to take control of the coast and landlock the country. So far Odessa has held fast in the face of Russian aggression. Its fate matters far beyond Ukraine's borders.
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