Extreme weather puts Russia's Odesa invasion on hold

Heavy seas allow port vital to Ukraine's economy to build strong defences, including 30km of mines

On Sobachyy beach, Oleksandr Hotovcev, 34, carries sandbags to bolster city defences in Odesa, Ukraine. Reuters
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Extreme March weather conditions have prevented Russia from mounting a major sea landing operation on the vital port of Odesa.

Heavy seas and unusually cold weather have stopped landing craft operations, allowing the Ukrainians enough time to defend the coast including laying 30 kilometres of mines, one of the city’s leading figures said.

The port, which before the war accounted for 70 per cent of Ukraine’s exports, is suffering daily bombardments from Russian warships stationed in neutral waters in the Black Sea, said Hanna Shelest, speaking from the city.

Odesa has a geopolitical significance because much of its grain is shipped to the Middle East, North Africa and China, with struggling economies such as Lebanon receiving 50 per cent of its grain from Ukraine.

Ukrainian service members patrol in front of the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in downtown Odesa, Ukraine. Reuters

But the port is running low on ammunition and in urgent need of missiles, particularly for air defence against daily Russian warplane and missile strikes.

But, the population is delighted that the poor weather has prevented Russian marines from landing.

“We are joking that this is the first year Odesa locals are really happy because of the bad weather in March,” Ms Shelest told the Chatham House think tank. “It is minus seven and that's something extreme for us as it should be clear and sunny, but this year we are happy because it makes operations via maritime assaults much harder because of the high waves and the difficult conditions for the boats.”

Russia has an estimated six Ropucha class amphibious landing ships each capable of carrying 10 main battle tanks and 340 marines. But it appears the troops have spent the past three weeks battened down in heavy seas.

Seizing Ukraine’s southern coast is vital to Moscow’s plans as it seeks to link mainland Russia to annexed Crimea via territory along the Sea of Azov.

Much of the territory has been taken except for the key port city of Mariupol, which on Wednesday suffered Russian shelling of a theatre sheltering 1,000 civilians.

A sandbag barricade in Odesa. AFP

Moscow’s generals are determined to take the city no matter what cost to the population, partly in revenge for the Ukrainians expelling them after a two-month occupation in 2014.

“All these years they've been dreaming about the route from the Russian Federation to Crimea, but you need to remember that in 2014 Mariupol was under Russian occupation for few months, until Ukrainian armed forces managed to kick them out,” said Ms Shelest, of Foreign Policy Council, Ukrainian Prism. “The Russians did not forget this, definitely. The severe damage that they are bringing now to the town … is because they cannot excuse that Mariupol didn't want to be with the so-called [separatist] Donetsk People's Republic.”

She said that Kherson, currently the only city to fall to Russia, was still not under control despite a week of occupation with locals “coming on to the streets with Ukrainian flags and clearly demonstrating”.

The Russian Navy's Ropucha-class landing ship 'Kaliningrad' arrives at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea, in February this year. Reuters

She said the strength of civil resistance was “the biggest underestimation” the Russians had made but that there were still fears of saboteurs trying to infiltrate the city.

While Russia had taken the North Crimea Canal, key to getting water into the peninsula from mainland Ukraine, their invasion had caused such infrastructural destruction that they were unable to get water flowing.

It was also claimed that Odesa’s air defences had shot down two Russian warplanes, but that they needed more missiles to defend the city.

“After three weeks of constant air strikes we are lacking ammunition and we may lack it very soon,” Ms Shelest said.

Turkey’s action was praised in refusing passage through the Bosphorus to Russian warships not part of the Black Sea fleet, which prevented further ship-launched missiles being fired at Odesa.

But Russian warships were preventing safe navigation in the Black Sea and had sunk at least one civilian ship.

Dr Iulian Chifu, security adviser to Romania’s prime minister, criticised Russia’s nihilistic approach. “What is the strategic goal of Russia? Putting a flag on rubble, on mountains of rubble? Is that a victory?,” he said.

Updated: March 17, 2022, 2:48 PM