Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Russian forces have swept across the country, laying siege to cities in the north, east, and even west. Having taken Kherson near south-central Ukraine and laid siege to the eastern port of Mariupol, reports suggest that the Russians could be eyeing the port city of Odessa next.

Russian naval activity in the Black Sea had put the city’s residents on alert, gearing up to face the brunt of a full-scale Russian assault. Now, they face a barrage of Russian airstrikes.

While control over Mariupol assures Russian hold over the Sea of Azov, Odessa controls access to and control over the Black Sea and is a tremendously important port vis-a-vis the movement of cargo and resources through Europe.

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Positional powerplay:

The city of Odessa is located in Odessa Oblast, a 33,300 square kilometre region that is the largest in Ukraine and roughly the size of Belgium or Moldova. The city, and the region in general, is home to a diverse multi-ethnic population, with Russians being the second largest ethnic group. The region also has considerable natural resources and is an important energy and transport corridor.

The Rhine-Main-Danube canal passes through the Odessa region, and is one of the most convenient waterways connecting north and central Europe to the Middle-East and Asia. The Rhine-Main-Danube canal connects the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, and coupled with a railroad system and international airport in Odessa, is an indispensable transport system for Europe.

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A regional trading hub: 

Additionally, three European trade routes, including an important section of the famed Silk Route, pass through Odessa Oblast, and the port of Odessa is linked to more than 600 ports in over 100 countries.

Oil, in particular, is an important resource that is either transported through or refined in Odessa: oil and gas from the Caspian Sea, Middle-East, Central Asia, and Russia can be transported via the port or pipelines in Odessa, while crude oil from Russia is refined at an Odessa refinery.

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Odessa’s value to Ukraine: 

Locally, the city and region of Odessa hold tremendous importance too: the city is an industrial centre in Ukraine and the region a strong agricultural producer that, as of 2007, was one of the top grain producing regions in Ukraine as well as an exporter of food grains. In fact, as of 2007, a fifth of investments in Ukraine had been made in the Odessa region.

Taken together, both the global and the local significance of Odessa and Odessa Oblast make the region one of tremendous strategic importance in the conflict in Ukraine: as General Sir Richard Barrons told The Times, what Odessa is to Ukraine, Dover is to the UK, and Russian control over the region could give Moscow considerable leverage over the West.