Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw (@WorldAffairsPro) is a global affairs analyst. He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In years gone by, Odesa was Ukraine’s “Pearl of the Black Sea,” where you would normally at this time of year see locals and holidaymakers jostling for space on its tempting sands. As day turned into evening, fashionable couples would be seen strolling its famed Deribasovskaya Street and youngsters flocking to its clubs that pulsated well into the night.
Now, more than five months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this historic holiday destination – which many famous poets, writers, architects and musicians have called home – has been transformed into ground zero of the global food crisis.
Nothing prepared me for what I have witnessed in Odesa. Eerily quiet streets, closed roads, tank traps and military checkpoints, deserted beaches, near-empty restaurants and bars. Last year, more than 3 million tourists visited the city, according to the Odesa Regional State Administration. This year you’re more likely to find war correspondents, aid workers and diplomats in its seaside hotels.
“I’ve never see the city so empty, Vladislav Davidzon, author of “From Odessa With Love: Political and Literary Essays in Post-Soviet Ukraine,” told me as he sat sipping an Americano, dressed in Espadrilles and a Panama hat in heavily fortified St. Catharine’s Square.
“All of my friends’ bars, restaurants and hotels are on the verge of bankruptcy. The economy is not sustaining itself and no one knows how long it can last,” added Davidzon. “In the past, Odesa had two industries: the port and raucous hedonism. Neither of them are working right now.”
A government official told me that because mines in the Black Sea tend to break loose and float ashore, people are too scared to head to the beaches. On a visit Wednesday morning to Otrada Beach not a single person could be seen on the pristine sands. One Odesa mother told me she’s too afraid to take her young daughter to the beach or large play areas for fear of missile strikes.
“Swimming pools will have to do for now,” she said.
Sadly for restaurant owners such as Lika Bezchastnova, owner of Dizyngoff Restaurant, the economic pain inflicted by the war doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.
Her trendy eatery opened after several months of closure on Saturday – the same day Russian cruise missiles hit Odesa’s port and just one day after Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to unblock Ukrainian grain stuck in three ports. The deal was to have helped ease the global food crisis which has reverberated around the globe.
And on Tuesday, just hours after I arrived here, more missiles struck a residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city.
“Since Saturday I feel the war every single moment, especially because we are so close to the seaside,” Bezchastnova told me as we walked through some of the city’s historic neighborhoods. “It is getting closer and closer every single day,” she added. For weeks, access to the restaurant has been inhibited by tank traps and a military check point right outside on St. Catharine’s Square.
At a nearby vantage point where the gigantic harborside grain silos can be seen, Bezchastnova tells me that the lack of activity at the port is unnerving.
“When I lay awake in the middle of the night you can usually hear every single noise coming from the port. It is comforting – it calms you down and you know that life goes on and the city is thriving. Now we don’t hear anything, it’s sad,” she said.
The grain export deal brokered in Turkey was aimed at breaking the blockade whose effects have rippled across the world. At least 20 million tons of grain are trapped in Ukraine due to the Russian blockade – one of the factors pushing more than 345 million people to the brink of starvation worldwide, according to the United Nations.
As part of the agreement, Russia was to have avoided inflicting more damage on critical port infrastructure. “The Russian Federation has committed to facilitate the unimpeded export of food, sunflower oil and fertilizers,” the UN said.
But Russia’s actions show that it cannot be treated as a reliable partner. As with several previous ceasefire agreements in the Donbas region since 2014, it says one thing and does another. Russia’s record on such things as violating agreements on humanitarian evacuation corridors since the war started is well documented.
Many diplomats have told me in the past that, even with a rogue state such as Russia, some dialogue is better than none. Hence, the upcoming visit in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be reason for some hope.
Turkey has plenty of skin in the game and can be expected to use what influence it has with Putin to not only make the grain flow again, but bring badly-needed peace to the region. Turkey has good relationships with both Ukraine and Russia and with Erdogan appearing to want to play the role of statesman or peace broker there is a good chance he will continue to prep for peace.
Since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas region, Turkey has played a central role in trying to bring peace, including through its heavy contributions to the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
Another motivation for Russia to adhere to the deal is to preserve its long-standing relationship with Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa impacted by the crisis. (Egypt is a top importer of wheat and is reported to have purchased as much as 80% of its needs from Ukraine and Russia last year).
Speaking in Egypt this week at the start of a regional tour of African states, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that Moscow will honor the grain agreement. While Moscow may not care much about its reputation in the West, I doubt it wants to be seen as the instigator of famine in many of the countries in the Middle East and Africa with which it has strong bilateral relationships – even if the reality is very different.
For its part Ukraine has said that, even after the missile strikes in and around Odesa, it will adhere to the agreement and takes the steps necessary to get grain moving again from the three designated Black Sea ports, with the first ships leaving later this week.
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Clearly, what happens in Odesa matters across the world. And what happens next is in the hands of Russia. Loosening the deadly noose around Odesa will not only bring the historic port city back to life but would also reduce the chances of starvation for tens of millions of people around the world.
For residents such as Bezchastnova, a return to normality in Odesa couldn’t happen soon enough. “Most of my friends are gone. What if they don’t come back? This is scary. I thought I would grow old and die in this city.”