They call it “the American base,” a naval outpost on the Black Sea that has been coveted for millennia by civilizations that claim control of it – including, this week, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The port city of Ochakiv in southern Ukraine, with a population of 15,000, has nothing to do with its importance: a tired post-Soviet community whose inhabitants cultivate vines, fish at sea and, at over the past decade, have sold goods to U.S. troops who have come here as part of efforts to build a more sophisticated naval capability.
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But for Mr Putin, who remembers the bitter Russian conquest of Ochakiv under Catherine the Great, this place became the focal point of a fury over perceived Western encroachment and historical grievance that fueled his military aggression against Ukraine.
In a long and bitter speech on Monday night that presaged a Russian military invasion of eastern Ukraine, Mr Putin called Ochakiv a US-built maritime operations center supporting the movement of ships from the United States. NATO in the waters off Crimea, allowing “the use of high-precision weapons by them against the Russian Black Sea Fleet and our infrastructure along the entire Black Sea coast.
Worse still, he said, the reinforcement of the foreign-funded navy constituted a kind of imperial heresy, after the conquest of Ochakiv in the 18th century under Alexander Suvorov, one of the greatest military architects of the Russian Empire.
Among those watching Mr Putin’s remarks on Monday night was Vitalyii Chupakhin, the manager of a building materials store in Ochakiv whose customers included US soldiers looking to buy rope.
The Russian president, Mr. Chupakhin said, appeared to be looking for motives for military action. Naval reinforcement in Ochakiv could be “enough to light a match – and for war to break out between Russia and Ukraine”, he said.
Indeed, the Kremlin “is trying to fabricate and use every possible excuse to justify possible military intervention,” said Mathieu Boulègue, a post-Soviet defense and security specialist at Chatham House, a British policy institute. and analysis.
The invocation of Ochakiv, he said, may signal an intention to act far beyond the areas of eastern Ukraine where Mr Putin has already sent troops. The Kremlin has said it has no intention of invading Ukraine on a large scale, but Mr Putin has threatened to punish crimes in Odessa, west of Ochakiv, suggesting he intended to exercise his authority there as well.
“They are certainly interested in potentially pushing – if there is further military escalation – beyond the Donbass contact line,” Boulègue said. “They might be interested in shutting down the entire Ukrainian coast.”
Situated at a triangular point near tributaries of the Southern Bug and Dnipro rivers, Ochakiv’s strategic value in controlling important waterways has been recognized by maritime nations for over 2,500 years, with archaeologists uncovering traces of Greek settlements of the sixth and seventh centuries BC. In the 15th century, its sandy cliffs overlooking the Black Sea were fortified by the Tatars and Turks, before its painful conquest by the Russians in 1788, after a six-month siege that left thousands dead.
Today, while Ochakiv belongs to Ukraine, a statue still commemorates this 18th century triumph. It is an eagle with outstretched wings that rises above a pyramid of cannonballs, a symbol of Russian victory.
Russia’s conquest of the Black Sea coastline from Crimea to Odessa marked an “existential achievement,” said Ridvan Bari Urcosta, a Crimean-born historian and senior analyst at Poland’s Strategy & Future think tank.
For Mr. Putin, that there is now a US military investment there is “shameful”.
But for years that was the reality in Ochakiv, with American influence beginning at the barbed wire perimeter fence paid for by the US Navy. Inside this fence, consecutive contingents of American naval construction battalions, known as “Seabees”, installed a concrete boat launch, overhauled the main naval pier and built a center for marine operations and boat maintenance facility.
The US Navy did not respond to requests for comment from The Globe and Mail. Globe’s repeated requests to visit the facility were denied.
Russian political and military leaders have expressed outrage at what is happening in Ochakiv. The operations center “could be interpreted as an outpost to monitor Russian forces in Crimea,” said Admiral Igor Kasatonov, former commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky warned Ukrainian leaders that Russia would “drown you there, in the Black Sea”, destroying the government in Kiev because “this is Russian land – Ochakiv”.
Meanwhile, Ochakiv has become an increasingly important center for Ukraine’s defense, said Ihor Kabanenko, a retired Ukrainian admiral. The maritime operations center is being transformed into a full naval base, partly funded by the United Kingdom, which has agreed to sell modern missiles to Ukraine, compatible with NATO standards, who will dock at Ochakiv.
It is a response, Mr Kabanenko said, to “Russia’s huge naval buildup in the Black Sea which directly threatens Ukraine”. Kyiv’s pursuit of closer military cooperation with NATO countries has included inviting foreign military trainers to instruct Ochakiv, while the intent of U.S. investments in Ochakiv has been to enable “to use it for US and allied exercises,” Lt Spencer Bull, a US submarine construction officer, said breaking defense in 2019.
Still, what Ukraine is building in Ochakiv poses no risk to Russia, said Evgeniy Poltavchuk, who operates a shipping service that docks next to the naval base, where a Ukrainian military vessel was stationed on Tuesday. Naval officers stood guard nearby.
“There is no danger for Putin here today. You can see for yourself. There is nothing,” Mr Poltavchuk said, calling the Russian leader “sick, old, crazy”.
Putin’s comments suggest a different outlook for Ochakiv, said Serhiy Bychkov, the city’s mayor.
“There is a danger and it is real. I hope it’s clear to everyone now,” he said, describing the preparation of evacuation plans.
“Only a fool is not afraid.”
With a report by Mark MacKinnon.
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