After Crimea Takeover, Ukraine Moves To Protect Odessa

With the Crimean peninsula effectively controlled by Russia, Ukrainian officials worry about another Black Sea port, Odessa. Ukraine fears this area with a Russian minority could be a tempting target.

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A Russian diplomat advised the United States on Thursday to relax and accept his country's annexation of Crimea. The Russian diplomat actually suggested his American counterpart should take up yoga and watch TV comedies, instead of worrying about Russia's takeover of the Ukrainian Peninsula.

WERTHEIMER: But NATO is, of course, worried about the massing of Russian forces on Ukraine's border. The alliance now warns there are enough troops to take any target inside Ukraine in three to five days. With the takeover of Crimea, Ukraine has lost a third of its coastline. And officials say that makes it all the more important to protect Ukraine's other main Black Sea port, Odessa.

NPR's Peter Kenyon just returned from Odessa and has this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The latest warning about Russian forces comes from NATO's top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove. He tells Reuters and The Wall Street Journal that Moscow already has all the personnel and equipment on the border that it would need for another incursion. The general says one possible objective would be to punch a corridor through Eastern Ukraine to Crimea, which Russia now controls but which remains dependant on Ukraine for water and electricity.

He says another goal could be to gain control of the historic Black Sea port city of Odessa. That's a concern shared by Ukraine's acting Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia. He says Moscow's drive to restore its Soviet-era clout could put Odessa at risk.

ANDRII DESHCHYTSIA: (Through Translator) In this context, looking at the map we can understand the Russian plans to destabilize the situation in Eastern Ukraine and in the south, at Odessa. This would give grounds for Russia to create a corridor over Ukrainian territory.

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KENYON: On a hill in front of a former palace named after one of the Russian Empire-era governors, who ruled here when Odessa was known as New Russia, it's possible to see much of the Port of Odessa. It's a very busy place, with trucks and freight trains clattering toward the loading dock. Odessa's importance to Ukraine as a Black Sea port has gone up dramatically since the capture of Crimea.

Although most of the Ukrainian Navy was captured in Sevastopol, the flagship fighting vessel, Hetman Sahaidachny was away on an anti-piracy mission off of Somalia as Russia's Black Sea Fleet surrounded the Ukrainian ships. Instead of returning to its Sevastopol base, the Sahaidachny came here - a lonely expression of Ukrainian naval power.

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KENYON: In Kiev, officials are busy sounding alarms and explaining why there is only so much Ukraine can do to come to its own defense. Acting Deputy Defense Minister Leonid Polyakov says the ministry is not, for example, inclined to cut short its U.N. peacekeeping missions in Africa. He also says there are no plans to move Ukrainian troops from the west to the south or east.

LEONID POLYAKOV: We have to be ready to repel aggression, not only in the east and the south - when Russians have Belarus as their ally, and they have their aircraft on Belarusian territory - we have to be prepared to defend every segment of our territory.

KENYON: Moscow says it has no designs on further Ukrainian territory.

Odessa has a strong Russian minority and some would like to see Russia come back. But many think it's unlikely.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: At a pro-Russian rally, 30-year-old Maria Bilchak, wrapped in a Russian flag, says if a takeover of Odessa could be a repeat of what happened in Crimea - with virtually no violence - that would be OK with her. But she's doubtful.

MARIA BILCHAK: (Through Translator) I believe there is very low chance for Russian forces to come here, not very likely. This hysteria about possible Russian aggression is just a provocation by the current illegal government in Kiev to cover up their misdeeds. But we don't believe that Russia will come here.

KENYON: Some analysts say Moscow might not need another incursion to gain the financial leverage it seems to be seeking. If it can keep Crimea and negotiate autonomy referendums in Eastern and Southern Ukrainian districts, this argument goes, Russia can effectively control large chunks of Ukraine's economy without the use of military force.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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