Odesa Faces Grave Threats From Air and Sea

Although Russia’s plans to swiftly take the region failed, the coast remains highly vulnerable.

Odesa Faces Grave Threats From Air and Sea

Although Russia’s plans to swiftly take the region failed, the coast remains highly vulnerable.

A pile of rubble is all that remains of Sea Pearl after a Russian air strike hit the family-run hotel in Zatoka, a beach village of 2,000 about 60 kilometres south of Odesa, on May 16. The neighbouring Villa Reef (on the right) was heavily damaged. Russia's plans to take over Odesa and its regions wiftly have failed but Ukraine's coast remains vulnerable to air strikes.
A pile of rubble is all that remains of Sea Pearl after a Russian air strike hit the family-run hotel in Zatoka, a beach village of 2,000 about 60 kilometres south of Odesa, on May 16. The neighbouring Villa Reef (on the right) was heavily damaged. Russia's plans to take over Odesa and its regions wiftly have failed but Ukraine's coast remains vulnerable to air strikes. © Michael Shtekel
Thursday, 16 June, 2022

On May 16, six-year-old Alexandra and her parents were at the Sea Pearl, the hotel the family owned in the Black Sea resort of Zatoka when Russian missiles hit the complex and destroyed it. The casualties included Alexandra’s own mother, and doctors had to amputate one of the little girl’s legs.

The shelling of the seaside village, about 60 kilometres south of Odesa, was one of a series of assaults against Ukraine’s coast and highlighted the region’s vulnerability to Russian barrages. 

The Kremlin remains determined to occupy the country’s south, with the coast providing strategic access to the Black Sea. Odesa’s port is a major freight and passenger transportation hub and is still under Russian blockade, impeding the export of millions of tonnes of grain.

In early March, Russian troops advanced from the occupied Crimean peninsula to Kherson, a key port on the Dnieper River, before moving north-west to Mykolaiv and Voznesenk with the aim of cutting the Odesa region off from the north.

After that plan failed, Russia began pounding Odesa city and the region. Life for people in an area reliant on tourism has ground to a standstill.

“Some hotels are preparing for the summer season and hope that they will have at least somebody to rent a room. For most people, tourists are the only source of income,” said Vitaly Grajdan, the mayor of Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky, the district’s administrative centre.

“The injured family [in Zakota, on May 16] was living in their hotel, they saved money for many years to build it, it was their life project,” he continued.

Zatoka sits on a sand spit of the Dniester estuary, next to where the river flows into the Black Sea, and it is a favourite destination for beach holidays. The village of 2,000 swells over the summer as tourists flock to its hotels and guesthouses; it has become even more popular since Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

But Zatoka has been hit repeatedly with missiles and cluster bombs since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24. The Russian army has reportedly been using old Soviet missiles, which are imprecise but powerful, in their assault. The May 16 attack saw Zatoka hit by either Soviet X-22 missiles or its modern version, the X-32, in a strike that also wreaked havoc on other buildings.

“We`ve lost a few walls, the roof is seriously damaged,” said a worker in the wrecked premises of the Villa Reef resort, which was only completed in  2017.

The man, who asked to remain anonymous, said that rooms had been about 100 US dollars a night on average. Pointing at the scattered shrapnel left after police and prosecutors had gathered evidence to identify the missile and its launch site, he added, “Until this strike, some hotel owners hoped to start the season, but now it`s impossible.”

Grajdan said that the air defence system had managed to contain some attacks, for instance in early March when the nearly 5,000 residents of Bilenke, 15 kilometres south of Zatoka, were evacuated after at least two FAB-500 cluster bombs were fired at the village.

Then Russians then switched to strategic and cruise missiles, safer to launch and harder to intercept. They are fired from the Crimean peninsula, from warships and submarines in the Black Sea or from strategic bombers like Tu-95 over the Caspian Sea.

A vital throughfare, Zatoka’s rail and vehicle bridge has been targeted seven times, most recently on May 30. Residents say that the military now keeps it off limits, with even emergency services unable to cross.  

It is a strategic site; the bridge connects Odesa’s main area with the historic region of Bessarabia, which is now divided between modern-day Moldova and Ukraine, which covers the southern coastal part.

Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky is also located a few kilometres from Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, which has close ties with the Kremlin and is home to two Russian bases and about 1,500 soldiers. Fears have mounted that Russia could use its military presence there to distract Ukraine’s armed forces from the eastern front, or create a new one and try to capture Ukrainian Bessarabia.

Military analyst Taras Chmut noted that Ukraine’s supply of anti-ship missiles was a deterrent to an amphibious assault, but Russian missiles remained a substantial threat as Ukrainian forces had limited capabilities to intercept them.

“Waters in this section of the Black Sea were mined by both sides, in particular the Russians, so it is not advisable to sail warships. Mines could be a threat to them, if they want troops to land,” he told IWPR, stressing that while a landing operation was unlikely, “they are a threat to us, to our use of the sea”.

Zatoka’s destroyed bridge also hampers Ukraine’s movement of troops and heavy military machinery to Bessarabia. The only other road partially crosses Moldova.

“A landing from the Danube is also a possible option,” Chmut said, adding that Russians could try to send smaller boats and gain control over Ukraine’s Bessarabian region. This could be achieved if Russian troops advanced through Mykolaiv or encircled Odesa from the north, all of which would require significant resources. The Ukrainian army repelled attempts in March and April.

But Russian forces have continued to strengthen their strategic position since establishing a base on Zmiinyi (Snake) island in the early days of the invasion. The position of this small piece of land just off the Danube delta, 22 kilometres from the coast, is key to control passage through Ukraine’s territorial waters.

The Ukrainian army managed to destroy ships and military equipment heading to Zmiinyi, but on June 6 the UK’s ministry of defence reported the Pantsir and Tor surface-to-air missile systems and radar equipment had made it onto the island.

“They are moving it nearer to Ukrainian-controlled territory; Zmiinyi is the intermediate point before Bessarabia,” Chmut noted.

In a significant April victory, two R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles fired by Ukraine hit and sank the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva, which could have provided critical air cover for a potential amphibious landing.

Odesa’s regional military administration maintained that Russian warships were now more vulnerable to Ukrainian air attacks.

“The Moskva had the anti-air system which could cover other Russian warships,” Sergei Bratchuk, the administration’s spokesman, told IWPR. “In my opinion they are trying to substitute this destroyed security dome with surface-to-air missile systems on Zmiinyi island. Possibly that’s one of methods to close their vulnerability.”

While Bratchuk anticipated more missiles strikes on the Odesa region, he was sceptical about Russians’ ability to mobilise their troops or proxies in Transnistria, where the pro-Kremlin de-facto government was dismissed at the end of May.

Shelling towards Odesa and the region has continued but has been repelled by Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems, with the city last hit on May 9. In the most recent attempts, supersonic P-800 Onyx missiles were reportedly destroyed.

Experts note that a landing operation cannot be completely ruled out as the Russian navy can still count on four warships with cruise missiles and three large landing ships, each of which can board up to 400 people and up to dozen pieces of heavy machinery. Such an assault, however, needs solid ground support. With Mykolaiv standing firm and Transnistria still unwilling to interfere, missile attacks remain the main threat for the Odesa region and its residents.

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