Fact and Analysis Check: Is Odesa ‘Putin’s Obsession'?
Updated Sept. 13 with a note from the author.
The New York Times’ lead story on the front-page of its Sunday Aug. 21 edition declares: Odesa is “Putin’s Obsession.” Needless to say, this is a big idea. In the midst of a brutal war, after an attempted Kyiv coup failed, Russian aggressors have succeeded in capturing all of Luhansk, 75% of Donetsk, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and most of the southern tier, establishing a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, this proposition—if it were true—could provide a clue about where this phase of the bloody war might plausibly reach stalemate. Recognizing its importance, the editors gave veteran reporter Roger Cohen a rare 6000 words in which to make his case. He uses that space argue that Odesa is “the Russian leader’s obsession”; “the big prize in the war”; “militarily … the highest-value target”; and the “grain port to the world.”
When I read the article, I reacted: say what!? As a long-time student of the Soviet Union and Russia who has been tracking and writing about Putin’s war against Ukraine, I asked: how could I and every other analyst I know in and out of the U.S. government have missed this? Having now reviewed the evidence the article presents to support its key claims, and compared it to what is known from what other experts including Bill Burns (now Director of CIA but formerly Ambassador to Moscow whose 2019 memoir offers the best brief profile of Putin), Fiona Hill (former assistant to Trump and before that the National Intelligence Officer for Russia), Angela Stent (another Russia scholar who earlier serviced as NIO for Russia) and others, our fact-analysis check concludes that each of these claims is false or misleading.
First, to support his central claim that Odesa is “a personal obsession for Mr. Putin,” the author offers no specific evidence. No statements by Putin obsessing on Odesa; no pantheons from Putin for Odesa; no reports of his inquiries about it or visits to it or impatience about capturing it. Instead of a previously-undisclosed secret diary or account of his conversations with his confessor, the article simply reminds us of Putin’s remarkable 5,000-word essay—"On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” All analysts agree that the essay, published seven months before the invasion, is seminal in understanding Putin’s conception of the current war against Ukraine. But no reader of that essay will find even a whiff of an Odesa obsession. Indeed, among the 5,000 words, Odesa appears twice—each time in a single line as an aside with no suggestion that it is anything special or as important as several other cities he discusses at greater length. In his long list of charges against Ukrainian "Naziism,” Odesa figures once.
Second, a review of Putin’s authorized biography, experts’ analyses of Putin and hundreds of other statements Putin has made about Ukraine, its capitol Kyiv, Crimea, Donbas, Kharkiv and other areas, finds no signs of any fixation or even special interest in Odesa.
Third, while quoting a distinguished diplomat, Francois Delattre (France’s former ambassador to Washington) in arguing that Odesa is the “highest-value target” in Ukraine, everything Putin has said and done, as well as any objective analysis of the situation demonstrates that Kyiv, the national capital and base for Zelensky’s government, is unquestionably the most valuable target. While Russia’s attempt at the beginning of the invasion to decapitate Zelensky’s government in Kyiv and declare victory failed, for Putin and many other Russians, Kyiv has a mythical status. In their narrative of Russian history, Mother Russia began with “Kyivan Rus.” They regularly refer to it as the “mother of all Russian cities.” Even though today’s bloody battlefield appears to be reaching a point of stalemate (despite Kyiv’s claim today to be launching a major counteroffensive in the Kherson region) as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine did in 2016 after Russia’s seizure of Crimea, as long as an independent Ukrainian government rules Kyiv and the remainder of central and western Ukraine, Kyiv will remain a cherished prize for Putin.
Fourth, for Putin and his fellow Russians, the first and even more essential prize was Crimea and its naval base at Sevastopol built by Catherine the Great. Fearing Ukraine’s slide West and a future in which Ukraine would have joined the EU and NATO, in 2014 Putin seized Crimea, held a referendum and annexed it. He and his government now insist that this is a settled matter. Indeed, Putin calls it “holy ground” and his colleague, former Russian President Medvedev, threatened “doomsday” for any attack on Crimea.
Fifth, the Times article’s claim that Odesa is the “grain port to the world” and “on Odesa’s fate hinges … the world’s access to food” reflects a favorite press tag line in stories about Odesa. Perhaps the fact-checker can be forgiven for missing this one, since if they looked it up in the Times or other papers they would find that many previous pieces have said the same thing. But repetition does not make a claim true. In the real world, the brute fact is that prior to the war, wheat exports through Odesa amounted to less than 1% of global wheat exports. Prior to the war, according to the S&P Commodities, Ukraine was the fifth largest wheat exporter—accounting for 10% of global wheat exports, 10% of which passed through Odesa.
Finally, the article notes that “on Odesa’s fate hinges Ukrainian access to the sea.” That is basically correct, since Odesa is Ukraine’s only major port on the Black Sea. But if the Russian advance across the southern tier of Ukraine that has now stopped 35 miles* from Odesa’s city limits resumes and captures Odesa, Ukraine would still have another 100 miles of coastline on the Black Sea. Thus, if in the next phase of the war Russia launches a major offensive in the South, Odesa will doubtless be a prize in the campaign but the celebration will not begin until Russian troops have continued the further 100 miles to the border of Moldova. At that point Ukraine would be a landlocked state.
If Odesa is not Putin’s obsession, what is? While that goes well beyond this fact-analysis check, my reading of his foundational essay suggests that it is to recover a Great Russia of which Kyiv and Ukraine are an integral part. Thus, whether in the months ahead Russia succeeds in capturing Odesa or not, as long as Putin rules Russia, I’m betting that he will still long for Kyiv and most likely all of Ukraine. In sum: we have entered Cold War II.
*Note: 35 miles refers to the straight-line distance from the westernmost Russian-held territory to the Odesa city limits by sea. The Russian advance remains roughly 100 miles from Odesa by road and 66 miles if tracing the coastline. I am grateful to Glen Howard and Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation for suggesting this clarification.
Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University where he has taught for five decades.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by Zinnsoldat shared under a Creative Commons license.