Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Feb. 8, 2023

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Rubin: No illusions about Putin in Odesa

The Columbian

If any Western leaders still nurse fantasies about talks with Vladimir Putin over the fate of Ukraine, Russia’s treatment of the historic port city of Odesa proves they are fools.

Just one day after signing a deal on July 23 to stop blockading Ukraine’s grain exports — which are critical to preventing famine in the Mideast and Africa — Russia shelled the port of Odesa from which the grain shipments were meant to resume. In the meantime, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is on a propaganda tour of Africa, falsely blaming Ukraine and the West for soaring grain prices. Never mind that Russian warships off Ukraine’s Black Sea and Azov Sea coast have been shelling and seizing key Ukrainian ports for months, even as they block Odesa’s harbor.

“It is very important that the world knows the truth about the situation in Odesa,” the city’s beleaguered mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, told me in his office at Odesa’s city hall, which is ringed with huge piles of white sandbags. “Our city is on the front line, including the information front line, and we must respond to Russian mass media fakes.”

The mayor wants the world to know that Putin has twisted the narrative of the city’s history to justify his claim that Odesa rightfully belongs to Russia. True, the city was founded on the orders of Russian Empress Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century, and was part of a swath of Russian-controlled territory along the Black Sea known at the time as Novorossiya.

Yet Odesa has been a multicultural city since its inception. Most Odesans are Russian speakers. But, said the mayor, “when Russia is killing people here, it is considered unpatriotic to speak Russian.”

The part of Putin’s depravity that is still difficult to grasp is the Russians’ deliberate assault on civilians. “I can’t understand the logic of targeting shopping centers,” said the mayor, referring to the latest missile attack on two large local supermarkets. (I have seen malls and markets demolished in every Ukrainian city I’ve visited.)

Yet Putin insists Russia doesn’t target civilians and uses only precision weapons, despite mountains of evidence before millions of eyes, including mine. Putin’s lies make Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels look like a piker.

So the Odesa mayor is indeed skeptical that the man he calls “this maniac Putin” will follow through on the grain deal. “The Russian occupiers haven’t kept their promises from the beginning,” Trukhanov said. “Putin used to say he had no plans to invade. Now they say they will secure the safety of ships?”

Like the mayor, the Odesa member of parliament Oleksii Goncharenko doubts Putin wants the grain deal to succeed. He told me, “Putin is doing everything to disrupt the deal.” And co-signatories, Turkey and the United Nations, seem unwilling or unable to control him.

In reality, Goncharenko said, “Putin wants millions of African refugees flooding Europe” due to hunger from the absence of grain. Putin’s maneuvers put the spotlight back on NATO members as to whether they truly want to avoid an African famine. That would require a decision to have NATO ships escort grain vessels in order to challenge Putin’s use of hunger as a weapon, and his illegal control of Black Sea waters.