Odessa was once a premier warm-water port, serving as the primary point of maritime access for the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. From Odessa, ships can easily traverse the Black Sea, then pass through the Bosporus before reaching the Mediterranean Sea and finally the Atlantic Ocean.
Like many port cities, Odessa is home to a variety of ethnic influences. Before succumbing to Russian control at the end of the 18th century, Odessa was controlled by the Ottoman Empire for more than 250 years. It became an integral part of Russian expansion under Catherine the Great, who viewed the city as a portal to her "New Russia." Czar Alexander I tasked Odessa's first mayor to transform Odessa into a world class city, and so from the 19th century to World War II, Odessa epitomized cosmopolitanism, with a mix of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, Greeks, Turks and others from across Europe finding a home in the thriving port city.
Partly because of its multiculturalism, the city defied the growing nationalism that swept Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century. The city was simply too diverse for any nationalist movement to take firm root. But things changed after World War II. Roughly 80 percent of the Jews in the city and the surrounding region were killed, and the large-scale forced ethnic movements following the war stripped Odessa of its minority populations, leaving it populated predominantly by Russians and Ukrainians. The city was then incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Now, Odessa belongs to Ukraine. The city is populated almost entirely by Ukrainians and Russians — around 62 and 29 percent of the population, respectively. But it is still distinct from most Ukrainian cities; it has neither the pro-Europe populations of western Ukraine nor the pro-Russia populations of eastern Ukraine. Thus, the city plays a unique role in the ongoing standoff, one that is marked by a struggle between both sides of the spectrum, without a clear and overwhelming inclination toward either side.
An Ideal Lever
Recent events have given Odessa a newfound importance. Now that Russia has annexed Crimea, Odessa serves as the headquarters of the Ukrainian navy. In fact, the Ukrainian navy's flagship, the frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy, is currently docked in Odessa.
However, commerce and trade trump the military's importance there. The port at Odessa has a capacity of 21 million tons of dry and 25 million tons of bulk cargoes per year. Moreover, its container terminals handle 900,000 twenty-foot equivalent units annually. Grain represented the largest cargo by weight in Odessa in 2012, while metals, oil and ore also play a major commercial role. In a city of 1 million residents, about 100,000 jobs are believed to be directly or indirectly related to the port's activities. As a result, any trade disruption would damage the city and the country economically.
However, the city is less important to Russian trade than it is for the Ukrainian economy. During the Soviet era, the port of Odessa served as a major transit point for both Russian and Ukrainian goods. But now, Novorossiysk is Russia's largest Black Sea port and its main oil terminal. Simply put, Odessa is no longer a vital commercial port for Russia, making it an ideal lever for Moscow to pressure Kiev.
For Russia, the value of Odessa lies in the city's position on the Black Sea coast and its proximity to the Russian-dominated Moldovan breakaway region of Transdniestria. Transdniestria is located roughly 70 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Odessa, and the two areas are well connected by roads and railways. It hosts 1,400 Russian troops and local forces loyal to Moscow, and there have been unconfirmed reports of a growing Russian presence in the region since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Although Ukraine has tightened its control of the border with Transdniestria, Ukrainian authorities remain concerned about the potential movement of militants and weapons from there.
Russia does not want to control Odessa outright, but as the crisis in eastern Ukraine spreads, Odessa's complex internal divisions, its central economic role as a leading Ukrainian port, and its geographic proximity to Russian-dominated Transdniestria could stoke tensions, possibly leading to Russian efforts to disrupt commerce. In that scenario, Russia would be much more likely to destabilize Odessa by using tactics such as co-opting local separatist groups than by military force.