On May 2, a couple of hundred pro-Russia demonstrators clashed with up to 1,500 pro-Western demonstrators near the House of Trade Unions in Odessa. The violence resulted in a fire in that building that killed more than 40 pro-Russia demonstrators, and another 100 were detained at a local police station. Two days later, a pro-Russia crowd gathered at the police station, forced their way in and released more than 60 of those being held, then left. The protesters used rudimentary tools in storming the police station; they were not organized or armed, and the police put up little resistance.
Odessa and its port are of strategic importance to Kiev and the wider region. This gives Kiev huge incentives to protect and stabilize the city while Russia looks for any opportunities to further destabilize Ukraine as a whole. Kiev dispatched an element of its newly established National Guard to Odessa on May 5. It also appointed a new governor for the region — Ihor Palytsia, an ally of Dnipropetrovsk Gov. Igor Kolomoisky, who has kept separatism in Dnipropetrovsk at bay by offering bounties to police and self-defense groups who capture pro-Russia separatists. This strategy could be tried in Odessa, but it is unclear if it will work there.
A Repeat of Russia's Tactics for the East?
Although Odessa is not like the east, it has given Russia a chance to try to weaken Kiev. Moscow likely will stop short of conventional military action in Odessa, such as a limited invasion or peacekeeping mission, for the same reasons it has avoided any full-scale conflict in the east. In many ways, trying to execute an isolated mission in Odessa relying solely on a naval supply line would be even more difficult. A blockade would be more manageable and enforceable, especially considering the state of the Russian Black Sea Fleet relative to the beleaguered and reduced Ukrainian navy. However, blockades that interrupt trade have repercussions that could provoke an international response — something Russia will consider seriously. This leaves the tactics that Moscow has been using in eastern Ukraine as a desirable option for Odessa, if available.
The first and most important element is for the pro-Russia groups in Odessa to become more organized in an effort to provide some strategic planning and tactical guidance, giving them the potential to be more effective. In the east, Russia accomplished this by inserting covert military and intelligence personnel into the fray to help drive local sympathizers. Nothing indicates that Russia has done this yet in Odessa. However, since this strategy involves a small number of people, sneaking them into the city would not be too difficult because they could travel through Crimea or Transdniestria, both of which are close to Odessa (some reports stated that an unknown number of people from Transdniestria participated in the Odessa demonstrations, though this has not been confirmed). Police are establishing checkpoints around the entrances to Odessa, so transporting them by watercraft could be preferable. However, this would preclude any attempt to import pro-Russia supporters in volume — by the busload, for example.
If Russia can get the ground support organized, it can more effectively focus its efforts. Odessa is a huge city, with a population of about 1 million, a large police force, anti-Russia activists ready to use force and a National Guard element. The pro-Russia groups must be better armed — so far, they reportedly have used shovels, clubs and a revolver — if they want to mimic the tactics used in the east. Other pro-Russia activists have attacked and raided armories or supply depots in police or military installations to get weaponry. If this occurs in Odessa, the pro-Russia element could become more capable of resisting Ukrainian forces and imposing a high cost on any attempt to regain territory.
The Value of Holding Buildings in Odessa
Events in eastern Ukraine have shown that relatively few determined and well-armed attackers can take and hold buildings, especially if the police are sympathetic or feel restrained in their responses. This tactic might well be within the reach of pro-Russia activists or other subversive elements dispatched from Russia if they can get there. However, Odessa's size raises the question of how effective building seizures would be in disrupting the city as a whole, especially if the number of ground support personnel remains in the hundreds.
The most critical piece of infrastructure to disrupt would be the port of Odessa. The port complex covers roughly 5 kilometers (3 miles) of waterfront and would be nearly impossible for a small force to completely control. However, if a few key structures — the control tower, the port control office/harbormaster's office and other minor control offices that operate sections of the port — could be overtaken, operations at the port would be largely inhibited. But it would take specific intelligence of the port and something close to a military raid to accomplish this because the port is a sprawling complex of hundreds of buildings with its own security forces. It is also the headquarters of what remains of the Ukrainian navy.
To cause any real disruptions in Odessa, Russia would have to get more pro-Russia elements on the street, either in numbers large enough to overwhelm the opposition or sufficiently trained and armed to do so by skill. Geography would hinder this endeavor because the Russians cannot move support or resources into Odessa as easily as they could into eastern Ukraine. The upcoming Victory Day celebrations, which celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, will be a key test of how many pro-Russia supporters there are, and how willing they are to feed the unrest in Odessa.