Odessa: Putin's Next Stop in Ukraine?
Russia's primary national security interest in Ukraine was and likely always will be the sprawling naval base of Sevastopol in southwest Crimea. Without it, Russia would not have the ability to project military power or even sustain a major naval fleet in the Black Sea and by extension, the Mediterranean. Furthermore, without Sevastopol, Russian air power would be confined to limited air bases in the eastern part of the Black Sea basin, thus ceding airspace dominance in the western portion of the Black Sea to Ukraine and the NATO countries that border it.
For decades, the key to Russian influence over Ukraine has been its supply of natural gas to the country. Ukraine imports approximately 65% of its natural gas from Russia, giving Russia major influence over the country's foreign as well as domestic affairs. Whenever Ukraine has strayed too far from the Russian orbit, Russia has "turned off the tap" to quite literally freeze the Ukrainian people and their industries. Likewise, Russia has extended very lucrative natural gas terms to Ukraine to achieve political objectives, such as a long-term lease on Sevastopol that now extends until 2042, with an option to extend it to 2047.
Ukraine can import crude oil and gasoline via its bulk fuel terminals in Sevastopol and Odessa, the two major ports in Ukraine. Until recently, it hasn't been economical or even technically possible to import large amounts of natural gas into Ukraine via the sea. However, this has changed in the past five years and there are now serious discussions underway to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminals in Odessa in order to break the Russian grip on Ukraine's energy supply. According to energy industry reports, Ukraine has considered building at least one major LNG receiving terminal to be operational by 2018 at five potential sites. All five are at, or within 50 miles of, Odessa.
If Odessa and its environs remain free from Russian interference, Ukraine could significantly diversify its energy supply in the next 10 years and reduce its dependence on Russian energy.
But if Russia pushes beyond the Crimean peninsula to capture the city of Odessa and the nearby coastal areas of southern Ukraine, Russia would eliminate Ukraine's ability to import significant volumes of LNG directly and prolong its ability to influence Ukraine through manipulation of its natural gas supply.
Ukraine has limited alternatives for reducing its dependence on Russia. More natural gas could be obtained from Western sources via pipelines in Poland or Romania, for example. However, major pipelines to carry the required natural gas do not exist and pipeline construction might take even longer to permit and construct than building coastal LNG terminals. Poland and Romania might be better gas pipeline partners than Russia, but the security risk would remain.
Ukraine could also pursue greater natural gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing techniques, which have had major success in the United States. Ukraine has large potential shale gas fields that are now only being tested for their gas-generation ability, however, it is not clear if those fields will be economical to exploit. Early attempts to exploit Polish shale fields have met with failure due primarily to the more difficult geology of the formations compared to those in the U.S. Ukraine could very well be similar given their geographic proximity.
The situation for Ukraine is made worse by the fact that most of the Odessa region's population are Russian-speakers and the region voted primarily for Viktor Yanukovych in the last election. Just as in Crimea, Russia could use the excuse of protecting Russian-speakers from violent Ukrainian nationalists to justify intervention.
The key to Ukraine’s energy independence from Russia and, therefore, its ability to determine its own political future lies in Odessa – the city, its port area and energy infrastructure, and the access to Black Sea it provides. Crimea is likely lost. But if Ukraine is to survive, all of its current focus should be on Odessa and preventing any Russian movements against this vital region from Crimea, Transnistria, or Russian territory.
The government in Kiev’s control of the Ukrainian military is in question. But if the military is to serve any defense purpose in this hour of need, it must secure control of all airport, communications, and port facilities in and around Odessa.
Further, the military should block major and minor roads Russian forces could use to access Odessa. This should begin with the highways leading out of the Crimean peninsula through the cities of Armyans'k and Chonbar, 200 and 250 miles from Odessa respectively. It should also send forces to block the longer coastal route from Russia on Ukraine’s eastern border.
Russia could potentially secure Odessa via amphibious assault from Sevastopol and other Russian ports along the Black Sea such as Novorossiysk, but amphibious attacks are among the most difficult of all military operations and would likely only be attempted if Odessa was left relatively undefended. Hence, even a limited garrisoning and defense of the Odessa-area coast might succeed in deterring such an action.
Finally, Russia could use its forces in the breakaway state of Transnistria, currently estimated to be at approximately 1,200 heavily armed troops, to move directly to the Odessa area. The Russian-occupied capital, Tiraspol, is only 60 miles from Odessa, putting Russian troops within a few short hours from Odessa on the M-16 highway. If the Ukraine military does not block that road to Odessa, it might be read as an open invitation to take the crucial city. Russia could fly a significant number of airmobile troops directly from Russia to Tiraspol to execute a larger movement of troops over time. Curioiusly, there seems to be little or no general reporting about the disposition or movement of troops in the Transnistria.
So far, Russia’s conquest has been bloodless. Ukraine may succeed in preventing further Russian aggression by raising the military stakes with an affirmative defense of Odessa.
Therefore, while all the world is focused on Crimea and the Russian anschluss of that key province, the Ukrainian government and military should do its very best to prevent another Russian fait accompli by securing its permanent access to the sea. With the Crimea solidly in Russian hands, the future of Ukraine lies in Odessa.