In the strategic port city of Odessa on the Black Sea, residents prepare to repel the Russian attack

When the air raid sirens sound these days in the Black Sea city of Odessa, there are those who run to the bomb shelters and those who continue to go about their business – although perhaps in a slightly more moderate way.

A Ukrainian colleague compared it to the early days of the pandemic, when the streets emptied with expectations of potential disaster and fear of the unknown.

But after a while, people started showing up on the streets in greater numbers as they adjusted to their new situation.

After all, predictions that Odessa’s strategic value as Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port and home to its small navy would make it an early target for the Russians did not come true.

Other cities bore the brunt of these early assaults, and thus bought Odessa time.

“We understand that while… Kyiv is fighting, while Kharkiv is fighting, while Mykolaiv is now fighting so bravely, we have this gap to prepare the city,” said Inga Kordynovska, a lawyer coordinating humanitarian aid for Odessa to the front lines across Ukraine.

Inga Kordynovska is a lawyer who coordinates humanitarian aid from Odessa to frontlines across Ukraine. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

The shelves of bars and stalls in Odessa’s trendy food market are now stocked with medicines and warm clothes for frontline soldiers and essential supplies for those caught up in the fighting.

Volunteers in high-visibility vests pack boxes or type on computers in the market’s two-level gallery, beneath a giant red dragon left over from happier times and still hanging from the ceiling.

Ukrainian war effort volunteers sit in a food market in Odessa. The sign next to the image of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reads: ‘Our nation is not for sale’. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Kordynovska says the horror of what happened in cities like Kherson, Melitopol and especially Mariupol in the east is a powerful motivator and unifier for Odesans who are preparing their city for war.

“We see that every town where Russian soldiers have come, everything has been destroyed,” she said. “And of course, even those who say they are not [into] Politics – [that] it doesn’t matter to us, Odessa is a separate city — now they understand that no, you can’t be out of this process. You can’t say, ‘It’s not about me.'”

Odessa “had a lot of time to prepare”

Some analysts have suggested that the reason Odessa has been spared so far – apart from the strong resistance Russian forces have encountered in cities like Mariupol and Kherson – is that the city, founded by Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great in 1794, is of particular importance for Russia. President Vladimir Putin.

Whatever the reason, the authorities seem determined not to waste time. Odessa’s elegant downtown is now a closed military zone dressed for war.

WATCH | Residents of Odessa, Ukraine are preparing for the possibility of direct combat with the Russian military:

Odessa remains unscathed, but vigilant

Odessa, Ukraine, has so far been spared any major Russian attack, but residents of the main port city say that doesn’t mean they can relax. 2h30

Metal anti-tank obstacles dot the city streets, some so tall they dwarf passers-by, who from afar appear like tiny pieces caught in a giant’s board game.

Odessa’s Baroque Opera is now beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, standing behind sandbags and glittering like a cake on the other side of a checkpoint. Musicians can still practice, showing IDs to soldiers with their instruments slung over their shoulders.

Residents who have not left the closed military zone are also allowed through, including 83-year-old Mark Bradis, who served in the former Soviet army.

“And where can I go? he said when asked why he hadn’t left the cordoned off area. “My wife is sick. She has Alzheimer’s disease. I take care of her.”

His gaze is dark.

“It is impossible to defeat [Putin]”, he said. “He has a lot of weapons that he hasn’t used yet … I’m afraid this will all end in nuclear war.”

Bradis asked, “Why should he occupy other people’s land? Enslave people? I can’t understand. It doesn’t fit in my head.”

Part of the fortifications in case of an all-out Russian attack, the Baroque Opera House in Odessa stands behind sandbags. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Some of the young soldiers at the checkpoints are more optimistic, insisting that Russian troops will never be able to take Odessa.

“They can try,” said Ilya, a 23-year-old who preferred not to give his last name for security reasons. “Odessa in my mind has had plenty of time to prepare. The city is definitely ready.”

“It’s a universal evil”

Local authorities are clearly working hard to maintain the morale of city defenders.

In a somewhat surreal scene over the weekend, they held a ceremony for members of the National Guard on the empty promenade at the top of the Potemkin Steps, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film. Battleship Potemkin.

There were flags, two armored personnel carriers and a marching band that sang a lively tune whenever someone’s name was called to receive a certificate – but no audience to watch and applaud.

In a bid to boost morale, last weekend local authorities held a ceremony to honor members of the National Guard. It included flags, two armored personnel carriers and a marching band. (Jason Ho/CBC)

The former pro-Russian mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, was present.

“I couldn’t imagine that I would consider [Russians] our enemies,” he said in an interview with CBC News.

Most residents of Odesans are native speakers of Russian, and in the past there have been divisions over Ukrainian and Russian identity issues in the city. Trukhanov says Putin’s invasion ended that.

“What politicians failed to do in 30 years – as they say, to sew up Ukraine – we achieved it today. We realized that we are all Ukrainian brothers and that we have a only land. It must be protected, and we will.”

Residents of Odessa sing the state anthem after building a barricade for a checkpoint last week. (Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Trukhanov insisted “we are not relaxing”.

“And I would advise European countries not to slack off either. Because it is a universal evil, a global evil, which today has shown its full essence by unleashing a bloody war and killing civilians.”

Watch Russian Advances

Air raid sirens often sound in Odessa, in part because the city’s air defense systems interact with cruise missiles launched by Russian warships stationed somewhere in the Black Sea at targets further inland. lands.

Odessa itself was reportedly hit only once by a bombardment, in a residential area on the outskirts.

On Tuesday, however, a cruise missile hit the regional state administration building in Mykolaiv, another port city about 130 kilometers east of Odessa.

So far, Ukrainian forces have succeeded in preventing Russian troops from advancing beyond Mykolaiv.

But if the Russians were able to overtake Mykolaiv by land, the consensus for many is that Moscow would be more likely to try to land troops near Odessa by sea.

Some of the beaches along the southern coast were reportedly mined by the Ukrainians in an effort to prevent such an attempt.

And along a stretch of Odessa, near the now inactive yacht club, local volunteers of all ages regularly gather with shovels to help fill sandbags, which are then transported elsewhere in defense of the city. .

A woman fills a sandbag from the beach in Odessa, part of a larger effort to fortify the city’s defenses against a possible Russian attack. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Among the volunteers is Olga Hodis, a librarian in her sixties. She says it helps calm the nerves to do something practical.

“Sitting around and doing nothing is much worse. When you do something, you feel like you’re being useful. Otherwise, you can read the news all the time and be scared and have panic attacks.”

Inga Kordynovska, who coordinates the city’s humanitarian center, calls the community spirit a continuation of the Maidan uprising in 2014, which led to the ousting of the then pro-Russian Ukrainian central government.

“You know, Maidan gave us a great sense of cooperation, but now it’s a hundred times more,” she said.

“Now we absolutely forget about all our previous conflicts inside Ukraine. It doesn’t matter with whom – with power, with authorities, with business, with voluntary organizations. Everyone is now really cooperating. And I think it’s the main weapon in this war.”