Amid news of the chaos in eastern Ukraine—where, as I am writing this, the latest reports are of a dozen or more key government buildings in the control of “Donetsk People’s Republic” activists, with lots of conflicting reports as to Ukrainian defectors and casualties—a perhaps momentous declaration was made in an ethnic-Russian-populated area at the other end of Ukraine, in Odessa. For many Westerners, Odessa is known only as the city whose famous “Odessa Steps” were used to stage one of the most riveting images in 20th-century cinema: in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, about a 1905 anti-Czarist mutiny, a baby-carriage is let loose and tumbles down these steps during a bloody massacre, the mother struck dead by a Cossack rifle. Nearly a century later, it is still difficult to watch this scene and sit still. As film viewers, all we can do is watch helplessly and wait to see if the carriage tips over or reaches the bottom intact, or doesn’t. It is something like the feeling that most in the West have as we watch a European nation of 45 million people attacked, invaded, and dismembered by a populist ultranationalist lunatic at the helm of one of the largest militaries in the world. There is little we can do but watch and wait—or avert our eyes in horror, as film-goers did in 1925.
A statement on the website of Odessa’s “Anti-Maidan” group announced on April 16th, “Beginning today, the Odessa region becomes the People’s Republic of Odessa, where the power belongs only to the people living on its territory.” It added, “At 16:00 tomorrow, Odessa must get blocked! Literally. Everybody who has not yet realized that the war had come to our houses should not go to work tomorrow. ... If you do not want a war that turns our country into ruins, like Syria and Libya, that costs thousands of lives, then you have to act. Odessa is already surrounded by enemy checkpoints. A state of war has already been declared in the country.” Though of course it is President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with a stealth military invasion that it continues to deny, that is plunging the Ukrainian mainland into civil war.
This declaration has so far not been accompanied by the physical takeover of administrative buildings, as has been the case in the eponymous capital cities of the three other separatist entities declared in the east, the People’s Republics of Donetsk, Lugansk, and Kharkov. Nor have there been reports that the public is being acting on the separatists’ call to arms. But it is clear that Odessa Oblast, between the Black Sea and Moldova, where Russian-speakers outnumber Ukrainian-speakers, is a place Putin has his eye on.
|Pro-Russian demonstrators in Odessa|
Odessa is crucial to Putin’s plans not only because of its long Czarist history but because it is adjacent to the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (a.k.a. Transnistria, a.k.a. Transdniestria), a sliver of eastern Moldova where Moldovans are in the minority and which declared independence in 1991 in much the same way Crimea did early this year. Transnistria is occupied by Russian troops and propped up economically by Moscow, but Russia has not recognized it diplomatically in the way that it has its two similar puppet states within the Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Transnistria has recently asked for diplomatic recognition from Moscow and for eventual incorporation, like Crimea, into the Russian Federation. That would be difficult for Russia to do without also controlling Odessa. Odessa is so close to Crimea by sea, and Crimea so close to Krasnodar Krai in Russia proper, that it would not be necessary for Russia to annex Kherson and Mykolayiv—where the Ukrainian majorities would presumably be more resistant—in order to create a safe corridor to Transnistria from the Russian mainland, though it is not impossible that those oblast’s more-Russian-populated coasts could be secured.
|Transnistrian foreign minister Nina Shtanski’s newest fashion statement is these fetching shades from|
the Wojciech Jaruzelski Collection. They say, “I’m a puppet state—and I’m feeling confident today.”
|An alternate Odessa separatist flag to that used on the Anti-Maidan website (see above)|
|Hmm, what to gobble up next?|
|Our sentiments exactly.|