January 13, 2023

To walk along the Odesa seafront is to briefly forget that you are in a country at war. Several times each day, the sounds of Russian attack start up, and soon after comes the Ukrainian retort. The alto of the air raid siren is now an almost inevitable precursor to the baritone of the air defence guns, booming reassuringly across the skies in answer.

The seafront, though, remains close to normal. The sky shines bright blue in the sharp cold, the beaches glisten a powdery off-white. But the idyll is upset by a strange stillness. The port, which made the city a global outpost, is almost closed. Providing the Russian Empire with access to Europe, and to the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, it saw everything from silk to olives to cocaine flow back in return. It made the people here, if not exactly cosmopolitan, then perennially open to the world. And it enabled a lot of good times. Eventually “living like God in Odesa” became Yiddish slang for having a good time.


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Today, however, the city is almost landlocked. Ahead of me, stretching out miles into the sea are hundreds of underwater mines. Somewhere just over the horizon lurks the Russian Navy. Moscow first wanted to conquer Ukraine. It couldn’t. Now it seeks to break the will of its people: as winter bites, rockets and drones pound energy infrastructure across the country; and once more Moscow is jeopardising international food security, by trying to sabotage the country’s grain shipments and further delay their arrival to the millions around the world who need them.

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Ukraine’s “black soil” (Chernozem) is one of the most potent natural resources on earth. It contains a particular constellation of microelements that make it the most fertile in the world, enabling it to grow a large and varied number of crops, including grain. These are then exported: Ukraine has a 42% share of the world’s sunflower oil exports, 16% of maize exports, and almost 10% of global wheat exports.

Pretty much as soon as Russia launched its invasion, routes in the Azov Sea were closed to merchant ships. The Russians do not respect the civilian/military divide, so it was simply too dangerous for them to sail. In early March, Ukraine had no choice but to suspend its export of meat, sugar, salt, oats, buckwheat, millet, and rye.

Fearful of a global food crisis, international institutions lobbied Russia, which initially ignored them. Eventually, though, the clamour got too much. On July 22, the UN (assisted by Turkey) brokered The Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian Ports Document. This slowly began to ease the backlog of 20 million tons of grain and other foodstuffs that had piled up in Ukraine. Finally, Odesa’s great port began to work again. Finally, the grain began to move — in theory.

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“They totally misunderstood our country; they didn’t understand who we were.” Igor Tkachuk, Deputy Governor of the Odesa Region, is flanked by two of his colleagues from the regional administration in a cafe in the city centre. Together, the men are responsible for making sure the region can continue functioning despite daily attacks.

Tkachuk explains how Russia is continuing to prevent grain from leaving Ukraine. The July deal established a so-called “humanitarian corridor” in the Black Sea for the shipment of grain — with ships searched in Istanbul by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN inspectors. The point of inspections is, apparently, to search for “unauthorised cargoes and personnel on board vessels inbound to or outbound from the Ukrainian ports”.

From the outset, Ukraine has complained about Russian inspections of their ships: often ships are waiting “for over a month”, according to the Ukrainian Information Ministry in December. Tkachuk says this is deliberate. “The ports are working; the grain is going on to the ships; we are ready to work. But there are more than 90 grain ships waiting in line in the Bosporus. Four months ago, I was Deputy Head of the port in Chornomorsk [south of Odesa]. I know how this works. They are acting as a break to sabotage the grain deliveries.”

He continues: “The Russians are saying that there are mines in the water — but there are no mines in this corridor. Also, under the terms of the deal, they have the right to inspect a ship before it goes. And they are doing this incredibly slowly. The Turkish inspectors can inspect a ship in three hours — it takes the Russians three days for some reason.”

He is not alone in this view. A few days later, I meet with Oleksiy Goncharenko, MP for the Northwest Odesa region. “The Russians are doing the inspection slowly,” he tells me. “They need a rest, they need to smoke, then a coffee. Then they are ill, and a million other excuses to delay the process. Generally, we have three or four ships going through inspections per day, but during the two days in which Russia wasn’t in the deal, that number was 20 ships.”

He is referring to a 48-hour period, from 29 October, when Russia briefly suspended the grain deal after the Ukrainian bombing of the Crimean Port of Sevastopol. Almost immediately after the event, Putin publicly vowed that if it emerged that “the explosives that blew up the Crimea bridge were sent from Odesa by a grain shipment”, it would “call into question the existence of humanitarian corridors”.

Goncharenko believes this contains a vital lesson for the international community. “It was clear from the first day that Russia would do everything it could to kill the deal; it was looking for any excuse. From the beginning, the Russians never wanted it. They want chaos and inflation; they want the Black Sea to remain closed. So when we attacked their fleet in Sevastopol, they obviously jumped at the opportunity to back out. But it was interesting because it didn’t work. They made a huge song and dance about leaving; [Turkish President] Erdogan said, ‘fine then’ and they came back in just over 48 hours.” He concludes. “This is really important because it shows the world how to deal with Russia.”

Crucially, Goncharenko believes the grain issue will not go away soon. “For a start,” he tells me, the situation “showed the world how important the Black Sea remains. Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, it has been the breadbasket of the world, but many forgot its importance — until it was closed. It’s vital for the world to open the Black Sea, not just for grain, but for all other exports. Right now, only one product is moving.”

A big threat in his eyes remains the possibility of direct assault and occupation of the ships. And this raises new problems, especially for the continuing supply of grain. From  January 1, 2023, many ship insurers — including those based in America and the UK — stopped offering “war risk” cover across Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, citing losses related to the conflict and from Florida’s Hurricane Ian. Goncharenko believes that, for the moment, this won’t have negative effects on the grain ships, but that we can’t rule out problems arising in future.

He is, however, convinced that the problems around grain will continue. He dismisses talk that Putin is ill or too old. “He is very active; I don’t believe he is ill — look at his recent movements. One day he was in Vladivostok, then in Kaliningrad. For Putin, Ukraine is like Chechnya: the first war was a disaster, so they did it twice. He’s constantly thinking about learning from mistakes. And if he does this, make no mistake: Odesa is Russia’s objective Number One — not Kyiv. He knows he cannot take Kyiv anymore. He believes Odesa to be a Russian city. There are three ‘holy’ Ukrainian cities for him: Sevastopol, Kyiv, and Odesa. He has one and has abandoned the other — we are the only one left.”

I ask him a question that I ask almost everyone I meet here. Britain and the USA went into Iraq without really knowing anything about the country or its people and blundered accordingly. But that was a country on a different continent, whose people spoke a different language and whose culture is strikingly different to ours. How could Russia, as Ukraine’s neighbour, with a shared language and so many cultural traditions, get it all so badly wrong?

Goncharenko pauses and smiles. “Do you know the Mayakovsky poem of 1921, ‘Debt to Ukraine’?” I don’t, and we look it up. “But what do we know/of the face of Ukraine?” the poet asks, before answering: “A Russian’s/cargo of knowledge/is slight… What they know is/Ukrainian borscht,/What they know is/Ukrainian salo./And from the culture/they skimmed the foam.”

“They never really understood us. They just thought they did. And this is why they are in the mess they are,” he concludes. I think back to the beginning of the week when I asked Tkachuk what he thought an already-isolated Russia hoped to gain by delaying grain shipments that were, after all, going to help feed people across the world? “No idea,” he shrugged. “The same thing they hoped to achieve by going to war with us in the first place, I guess.”