Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Fact and Analysis Check: Is Odesa ‘Putin’s Obsession'?

| August 29, 2022

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.

About This Analysis & Opinions

Fact and Analysis Check: Is Odesa ‘Putin’s Obsession'?
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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Fact and Analysis Check: Is Odesa ‘Putin’s Obsession'?.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 29, 2022.