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Putin’s attack on Odesa is truly the act of a terrorist state | Trudy Rubin

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ODESA, Ukraine — In case anyone still has doubts that Vladimir Putin is a terrorist, consider what he did to this iconic port city over the past week.

It was not enough that he pulled out of the U.N.-brokered deal by which Russia had partly lifted a blockade that stopped desperately needed Ukrainian grain from leaving Odesa’s port. The Kremlin is demanding a lifting of key banking sanctions as the price for renewing the deal.

But to make sure Ukraine could not find a way to break the renewed Russian blockade, perhaps by having Turkey escort grain ships, Moscow has been firing missiles into Odesa’s port, its grain silos and smaller Ukrainian grain ports on the Danube River — directly across the border from NATO member Romania.

In a week, Putin’s military has destroyed tens of thousands of tons of grain that could have fed 270,000 people for a year, according to the World Food Program.

That still wasn’t enough for Putin. So to slam home his message that the world must bow to his demands, he sent Russian missiles into the center of this World Heritage city — this exquisitely beautiful city that was founded in 1794 by Russian empress Catherine the Great, whom Putin claims as a role model.

Once again, Putin exposed his nauseating pose as a defender of the Russian Orthodox Church and traditional Christian values — a pose that has entranced many on the GOP’s far right in the United States and extreme-right parties in Europe: His military fired a missile directly through the roof of the historic Russian Orthodox Transfiguration Cathedral in the center of Odesa — a missile that tore off the roof and slammed into the marble altar.

Walking through the shattered church as workers and priests struggled desperately to save icons and prop up pillars, I wondered how anyone could fail to see the reality of Putin — a terrorist who has ruined his own country and will ruin others’ until he is stopped.

On this, my latest trip to Ukraine, I had left Odesa for Kyiv, then traveled east on my way to the front lines of the counteroffensive. But I felt compelled to return to this city to write about the crimes Putin was committing against “Odesa Mama,” the nickname by which this beloved city is widely known.

Not only had Russian missiles hit the church, but also the House of Scientists and university buildings, both in historical areas, as well as civilian apartment blocks. Friends had huddled in hallways and shelters for several incredibly frightening evenings. “My 5-year-old son kept asking me if a missile was going to kill him,” my translator told me.

When I checked into my hotel in the city center, across from bookstores and coffee bars, and a few blocks from the wounded church, I immediately asked about the bomb shelter. The desk clerk told me she never used it, and indeed it was set up with chairs and a screen and had been used formerly to screen films.

Instead I downloaded a special Air Raid Alert warning system on my iPhone that operates in Ukrainian and English. This night, unlike several previous, hideous nights, the alarm was for port areas outside the main city. The English narration for the Air Raid Alert is done by Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. When the threat was over, his voice calmly intoned, “Air alert ended. May the force protect you.”

But the force hasn’t protected Odesa from Putin’s strikes on food and civilians, despite the hold that “the pearl of the Black Sea” has on the hearts of Russians and Ukrainians. With its city center of historic 19th century Russian buildings, its beautiful city garden park, its flowers and lovely seacoast, its cafes and tradition of theater, literature and opera, Odesa was the place of summer vacations, honeymoons and memories. A famous song about the “city I see in my dreams” plays in the main train station as passengers disembark.

As one Ukrainian friend told me after this week of bombing, “People all over the country are crying over the attacks on Odesa.” Until Putin’s war, the city was largely Russian-speaking (but now most Odesans I know have switched to Ukrainian). Until Putin’s war, a statue of Catherine the Great dominated a square near the famous Potemkin stairs leading down to the harbor.

Thanks to Putin’s brutality, this past year, the statue was removed and a Ukrainian flag now flies above the empty pedestal.

Indeed, Russia’s deliberate attack on the Transfiguration Cathedral makes clear how little Putin cares about Russian-speaking Ukrainians — despite his claims that he started this war to protect them.

“He says he protects Russian people, but this is how he protects them,” scornfully commented Protere Maximilian, one of a group of Russian Orthodox priests gathered near the church entrance.

The cathedral’s principal priest, Protere Miroslav, recounted how he had rushed to the church just after midnight on Sunday and desperately tried to put out a large fire with a single extinguisher. “This church was the heart and soul of Odesa,” he told me. “That’s why they hit it.”

The largest Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the cathedral was founded in 1794, the same year that Catherine’s emissaries founded Odesa. “Stalin destroyed the church in 1936,” Miroslav’s wife, Martina, told me, “and it took many years to reconstruct it.”

The rebuilding effort occurred within an independent Ukraine and, despite tensions between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, the cathedral flourished in Odesa. Until Moscow shattered the roof with a missile.

The city’s fire department hesitated to put out the blaze because it feared the Russian terrorist history of the “double tap” — conducting a second missile attack as soon as humanitarian aid workers arrive.

Putin’s attack on Odesa is a public slap at the United Nations as broker of the grain deal, at Turkey as co-sponsor, as well as at NATO, three of whose member states border the Black Sea. It is truly the act of a terrorist state, designed to frighten and demoralize Ukrainian civilians and leave their Western allies helpless.

And, as we know, terrorists will strike again if they are not stopped.

Ukraine does not have the air defenses to stop Putin from destroying its ports or F-16 planes, which could hit Russian missile delivery systems. Its air defense teams have done miracles by upgrading old Soviet-era anti-missile weapons, but they are woefully inadequate to stop all missiles or all the Iranian-made Shahed drones.

Only Kyiv has received two Patriot missile batteries that can protect the entire city. One Patriot battery could do the same for Odesa. It should be delivered soon.

Ukrainian military officials told me shoulder-fired Stinger surface-to-air missiles and night-vision goggles also would help.

After the Ukrainians sunk the Russian Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, in April 2022, not far from Odesa port, the city government hung out a banner proclaiming “If you hurt Odesa Mama, Mama will bury you.”

Odesans are fighting back against Russian terrorist attacks with grit and ingenuity. But — to feed the world and stop Russian terrorism against civilians — “Odesa Mama” badly needs our help.

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