The Ukrainian port of Odesa has fallen silent, revellers in its city centre replaced by blockades and tank traps, its famous Potemkin steps empty and statues protected by sandbags, waiting to see if the bombs that have fallen across most of the other great cities of the country will land here too.
A Russian-speaking cultural and strategic hub on the Black Sea, it is clear that Moscow’s invasion plan included trying to seize control of this historic city. Yet 20 days into the war on Ukraine, its streets are undamaged by explosives, though emptied by the tide of war.
“It takes a very long time to get used to such silence in the city,” said Daniel Salem, now an officer in the national guard. He ran four bars and restaurants in Odesa until the end of February, and still lives in the city centre.
“Every time I come out I imagine I can hear the voices of people, I think I see them. This is a place that is always partying, this main street is full of people dancing, having fun.”
Officials estimate that at least 60% of Odesa’s population have left for safer parts in the east, or beyond Ukraine’s borders; Salem’s wife and daughter are part of that exodus.
Downtown the city bristles with fortifications, the famous beaches have been mined and troops and volunteers are trying to keep up morale and spirits for an attack they believe has been delayed, but not deterred.
A land advance was halted by Ukrainian defenders at the town of Mykolaiv, about 120km to the east. But Ukrainian officials and foreign intelligence have repeatedly warned that Russia is still planning an attack, massing warships off the coast, and may try to bypass Mykolaiv.
Britain’s defence ministry said Russia had already carried out one amphibious landing in the eastern Sea of Azov “and could look to conduct further such operations in the coming weeks”. It has also blockaded the country’s Black Sea coast, in effect isolating Ukraine from trade by sea.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, claimed Russian plans for a seaborne assault on Odesa last week were abandoned only because of the weather, and were back on the table, although he promised a fierce defence.
“The Ukrainian forces are waiting for them there, the situation is under control.”
There is someone to meet them, just as they were “met” outside Kyiv and other cities where Russia troops have suffered heavy casualties, he added.
The city’s defenders say Odesa is ready, after nearly three weeks of preparation, their plans bolstered by copying tactics that have worked against Russian forces elsewhere.
“We have turned the city into fortress Odesa,” said Artyem, a battalion commander of the national guard in Odesa who declined to give his last name, citing security.
“We call Odesa the mother city because it will accept any child, from any continent. But it is also a protective mother, and Odesa will kick the ass of anyone who tries to offend her spirit. We say anyone who hurts mama will sink into the sea.”
They are watching Russian troops to see if they try to bypass Mykolaiv – his hometown – to move on Odesa by land, or attempt an assault from the sea, although military experts say Russian supply lines would be highly vulnerable to attack without a land route to the city.
“They have three ways to bypass Mykolaiv, and so our target goal is to close all entry and exit points. Particularly in Odesa, there are lots of places where they could launch an assault,” Artyem added.
The city was apparently safe enough this week, and officials had enough free time to organise a tour for Bernard Henri Levy, the French public intellectual spotted in the city.
They were trying not to get complacent, and keep the mood in the city calm, in the face of daily reports on atrocities in Ukrainian cities that are under attack, from besieged Mariupol to the capital, Kyiv, where suburbs have become killing grounds.
“We have a couple of tasks. One is to decrease the level of panic inside Odesa, protect the perimeter of the city, and identify saboteurs. We have watching eyes on the air, the sea and the ground,” Artyem said.
Their biggest need, said a spokesperson for the military administration in the city, is a no-fly zone over the city, a request made regularly to the west by Ukrainian officials but so far firmly rejected on the grounds it could lead to escalation of the conflict.
“The most important thing is to close the sky,” the spokesman added. “It would be easier to defend Odesa and all Ukraine without Russian planes.”
Salem is confident enough of the preparations that he has volunteered to go and serve on the frontlines in Kharkiv, or nearby Mykolaiv. “I don’t think in the next couple of days they are going to come here,” he said. “They are torturing us with the wait, their strategy is to try and make us lazy or sloppy.”