Ukraine remains defiant as Russia pounds Odessa and grain facilities

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
The Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa.

ODESSA, Ukraine – If the largest cathedral in this besieged port city survived Joseph Stalin, it will survive Vladimir Putin, said Myroslav Vdodovych, the chief priest of Transfiguration Cathedral, less than a day after a barrage of Russian missiles ripped the church apart, along with 24 other architectural monuments across the city.

Odessa, a critical southern port city, has been under nightly missile attacks since Russia’s president last week canceled a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey that allowed Ukraine to export its grain, lessening a global food crisis that had put a strain on the developing world.

Ukraine has responded with defiance – launching drone attacks on buildings in Moscow and on an ammunition depot in Crimea – while cleanup crews and parishioners cleared debris from the cathedral’s littered floors.

“You can damage a church, you can kill a man but you can’t destroy the faith,” said Vdodovych, wearing a black robe and hard hat as dust swirled through a hole in the cathedral’s roof left by a missile still buried two stories beneath the altar.

At the start of his brutal war, Putin harbored hopes of occupying Odessa, a historically Russian-speaking city known as the “pearl of the Black Sea” for its beautiful architecture and history as a vibrant, multiethnic cultural center. But Russia’s military faltered and failed even to seize Mykolaiv, the capital of the region directly east of Odessa and the two cities have become symbols of resilience. Instead, Moscow blocked the ports, aiming to strangle Ukraine’s agricultural sector until the grain deal brought relief.

The Kremlin had threatened for months to kill the deal and finally did so last week, days after Ukraine carried out a strike on the Crimean Bridge, destroying part of its roadway with an attack using naval drones.

The latest wave of Russian strikes in Ukraine destroyed grain warehouses along the Danube River on Monday, an export route that has become more important since the demise of the deal allowing Ukraine to ship its grain through the Black Sea.

The Russian strikes, carried out by drones, sent global wheat and corn futures rising on fears that Russia’s latest offensive will undermine grain exports. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called on Russia to return to the deal because of the devastating impact it was having on “vulnerable countries struggling to feed their people.”

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis denounced the strikes. “I strongly condemn the recent Russian attacks against the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure on Danube, very close to Romania,” Iohannis tweeted, adding that the attacks posed “serious risks to the security in the Black Sea.”

In Odessa, the missile barrages killed at least one person and injured several more while wrecking cars, blowing out windows and damaging other sites including Zhvanetsky Boulevard, the House of Scientists and a number of historical mansions.

“Russians deliberately aimed their missiles at the historic city center of Odessa, which is under the UNESCO protection. Everything that was built with hard work by great architects is now being destroyed by cynical inhumans,” said Oleh Kiper, head of Odessa’s regional military administration.

The Transfiguration Cathedral was first destroyed in 1936 during a Stalinist campaign to rid the Soviet Union of religion. “They tried to blow it up multiple times but the walls were so thick they couldn’t do it,” Vdodovych, the chief priest, said.

Instead, authorities filled an adjacent clock tower with explosives “then blew it up and the clock tower fell onto the church,” Vdodovych said.

The Soviets’ persistence was only matched by a stoicism that the people of Ukraine carry with them today, he said. “Stalin killed so many people, thousands of them priests, but the Church didn’t disappear because we have the support of God,” he added.

The Russian Ministry of Defense denied responsibility for the cathedral strike, saying it only attacked areas where “terrorist acts” were plotted. “All targets scheduled for attack were destroyed,” it said. (Russia has repeatedly hit civilian targets in Ukraine including residential buildings and hospitals.)

Ukraine, which has received missile defense systems from the West but has to ration their use because of shortages, has struggled to block Russia’s repeated strikes on Odessa. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has condemned Russia’s attacks, saying “there can be no excuse for Russian evil.”

“As always, this evil will lose and there will definitely be a retaliation to Russian terrorists for Odessa,” Zelensky said Sunday. “They will feel this retaliation.’

Hours later, drones struck buildings in Moscow, a rarity given the limited range of most of Ukraine’s unmanned aircraft. Shattered glass fell from the 17th and 18th floors of a tall building in Russia’s capital, Russian officials said. The wreckage of a second drone was found on Komsomolsky Prospect, a thoroughfare in central Moscow. Mayor Sergey Sobyanin said two nonresidential buildings were struck but there were no casualties.

Additionally, the Russian Defense Ministry said Ukraine attacked Crimea, the peninsula invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014, with 17 drones but the ministry said most were disabled by air and electronic defenses. Three drones fell on Crimean territory, and there were no casualties, the ministry said. The Washington Post could not independently verify the account. Russia uses Crimea as a base for its forces and the Crimean Bridge as a crucial link for supplies coming from Russia.

The wreckage in Odessa was far worse than in Moscow or Crimea. Parishioners of Ukraine’s cathedral, young and old, worked diligently to clean the floor of the church’s less damaged entryway so it could be used for upcoming services.