Odessa Bombings Show Separatists' Limitations

6 MINS READJan 8, 2015 | 10:17 GMT
Odessa Bombings Show Separatists' Limitations
Ukrainian troops stand guard in Odessa, Ukraine, on Jan. 5.

Since July 2014, nine bombings have rocked Odessa, one of Ukraine's major port cities. While the recent bombings were not carried out in a professional manner by a group with strong institutional organization, they demonstrate the ability of pro-Russia elements to disrupt daily life outside Ukraine's east. The pro-Russia attacks also reveal constraints in creating a large-scale movement in the Odessa area, which is especially significant because of its location and unique political orientation.  

The Odessa bombings are not the first to take place outside the battlegrounds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Over the past months, Kharkiv and Mariupol have also been bombed, with Russia-backed forces using explosives to target infrastructure, especially railway bridges, during the active fighting of the summer months. However, the frequency of attacks has increased in Odessa. Of the nine bombings in the city, seven have taken place since the beginning of December. The higher rate is notable because Odessa is more than 700 kilometers (435 miles) away from the separatist-held city of Donetsk, and the vast majority of the city's residents do not heavily support Russia, despite their ambivalence toward the Ukrainian government.

For much of its history, Odessa has been a strategic port city. Catherine the Great issued an edict in 1794 to found the city with the hope that it would become a commercial hub. The move happened just as Russia was expanding its control southward throughout the strategic shores of the Black Sea, developing its naval arsenal in the region and distributing land to Russian colonists. As Odessa grew, the city capitalized on its geographic proximity to the flatlands to the north and to key maritime shipping routes to become one of the Russian Empire's most significant commercial cities in the 19th century. By mid-century, more than half of the Russian Empire's grain exports to world markets passed through the port, making it a central component of its trade network.

Today, Odessa is a key port for Ukrainian exports, especially grain, metals, oil and ore. Shipping activity employs some 100,000 people, or 10 percent of the city's population. Moreover, after the annexation of Crimea, Odessa became home to Ukraine's navy.

While the majority of the city's population speaks Russian and some 29 percent of its residents are ethnic Russians, Odessa's status as a major port city has made its people neither pro-Russia nor pro-Kiev. The city's multi-ethnic culture in the 19th century made it more cosmopolitan, giving the city a unique political climate.

Odessa's Bombings

Bombings in Ukraine are not unusual; in the past, a wide variety of actors have staged attacks for various reasons. Nevertheless, the recent bombings in the city show some similarities, though not necessarily indicating that they were carried out by the same group or were actively coordinated. Most of the attacks have targeted offices that support the Ukrainian volunteer forces fighting the separatist movements in eastern Ukraine. However, they have been executed in a way that minimizes the risk of causing casualties. All of the attacks have used limited amounts of explosives, resulting in only minimal damage to doorways and windows. The deliberate attempts to limit damage indicate that the attackers are more interested in creating a sense of insecurity in Odessa and disrupting pro-government militia activity instead of inflicting significant damage or casualties.

Moreover, the two attacks on Dec. 24 and Jan. 3 were slightly atypical. Both targeted rail infrastructure rather than charities supporting volunteer organizations. The first bombing attempt targeted a railroad track and was carried out as a cargo train was passing, though it failed to even bend the track. The second one targeted a tank car filled with petroleum products at a station in Odessa. It punched a hole in the container, and some of the fuel leaked out, but there was no massive explosion. While the target set indicates a greater intent to hurt economic activity in Odessa, the limited damage kept the attacks from achieving their intended outcome.

These two bombings do resemble a series of attacks that successfully targeted railway infrastructure at a persistent rate in June and August during the intense fighting in Donbas. The bombings differed in method, however, because they used larger amounts of explosives and, most notably, targeted bridges. They also disrupted Ukraine's logistical support feeding combat operations in the east. The current attacks have had little direct effect in this regard, as the success of the cease-fire has largely put a hold on fighting, and therefore, the demand for supplies.

Pro-Russia Groups Likely Behind Attacks

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Odessa or made any political demands, but pro-Russia, or at the very least anti-Kiev, elements are likely the ones carrying out the attacks. After the fall of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich, pro-Russia and pro-Kiev groups held large protests that sometimes turned violent. Following violent clashes and the death of more than 40 pro-Russia demonstrators at Odessa's House of Trade Unions in early May, Ukraine's new authorities sent reinforcements to limit violence within the city and appointed a new governor, a businessman with ties to some of the country's leading oligarchs. Moreover, Ukrainian authorities proactively targeted groups suspected of fomenting separatist activity within the city.

Nevertheless, Odessa's residents have not become supporters of the Kiev government either. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, only two of the Odessa region's representatives in Ukraine's parliament were members of President Petro Poroshenko's bloc, while eight were members of former President Viktor Yanukovich's Party of Regions. Still, while the city's residents are ambivalent about the government in Kiev, they do not support the rebels in the east. This lack of support has made it difficult for separatists to build a strong movement in the city, making small-scale bombings their most effective course of action.

Bombings in Odessa are likely to continue, and as they do, an evolution in the selected targets or the effectiveness of the explosive devices used could lead to attacks with a more significant impact depending on the intent and capabilities of the bombers. The recent attacks on railway infrastructure, though possibly the work of a separate cell, may indicate an intent to increase the damage of attacks. As the perpetrators seek to sustain a level of insecurity and disrupt life in Odessa, sites associated with pro-government groups and economic infrastructure could see an increased risk of attacks.

However, the sustained bombing campaign also highlights the inability of pro-Russia groups to elicit significant support or construct a strong pro-Russia movement in Odessa. So far, the bombings have only harassed but have not caused material damage or killed people. Bombing campaigns could change in the future, becoming more significant if the attackers begin using larger devices, increasing their operational tempo to strike more frequently and targeting critical infrastructure or people.

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