Mystery bombings muddy waters in Ukraine’s divided port city

Odessa – Alina Radchenko lost track after about the 15th bombing in Odessa, where she runs a volunteer centre to support battalions fighting pro-Russian rebels in the east.

A blast destroyed her office in January, followed by explosions at the headquarters of pro-Western parties, Ukrainian nationalist groups and banks known to support Kiev’s forces.

Although Odessa lies far from the brutal fighting, dozens of mystery attacks here have killed one person since last year and stirred up an atmosphere of mistrust in the already divided Russian-speaking Black Sea port.

Founded in 1794 by Russian Empress Catherine II, the buzzing coastal city lies deep in government-controlled territory but some here fear that it could eventually be in Moscow’s sights.

“Attitudes in Odessa are about 50-50,” Radchenko said in a new city-centre office decorated with Ukrainian flags and pictures of Ukrainian soldiers, where she and other volunteers are now under police protection.

“The situation is very strange,” she added, accusing local authorities of being anti-Ukrainian and of turning a blind eye to the violence.

Ukraine’s security service (SBU) this week claimed to have “disarmed” two groups behind some of the blasts, detaining five people.

One detainee – a former Ukrainian soldier who deserted – was found to have an arsenal of grenades, handguns and other weapons.

Another was part of a pro-Russian Cossack group and had weapons as well as “pro-Russian propaganda materials” in his home, the SBU said.

SBU officials believe the blasts were planned from Russia and are treating them as acts of terror.

‘We are Novorossiya!’

The main port of Imperial Russia and site of important WWII battles, Odessa is highly symbolic for Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last year said it is not historically part of Ukraine but of Novorossiya – a tsarist-era term now used by pro-Russian rebels in the east.

Some in Russia talk of extending rebel rule westwards from Crimea, across the north of the Black Sea to reach Moldova’s unrecognised separatist region of Transdniestr – where Russia has a sizeable military presence.

The rhetoric has put pro-Ukrainians on high alert in Odessa, raising fears that the region could become another “people’s republic”, similar to rebel territories in Donetsk and Lugansk, where a tense ceasefire has held for about a month.

Local SBU advisor Andriy Yusov recently warned that peace in the east could lead to heightened efforts to “destabilise” government-controlled cities like Odessa and Kharkiv beyond the rebel-held territories.

“Clearly we’ll have a very difficult spring,” he told local website 048.ua last week.

Opponents of Kiev’s pro-Western leadership, which came to power following last year’s revolution, gather every week in a central Odessa park, next to the building where 45 people – mostly pro-Russian activists – died in a blaze last May after clashes with pro-Europeans.

The crowd – some of whom sported the orange and black striped ribbons worn by pro-Russian rebels in the east – consists mostly of elderly people.

On a recent Sunday, some shared flyers and poems while an improvised religious procession sprinkled the turnout with holy water.

Nearby, two women argued with a monitor from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who was observing the gathering.

“We are not Europe, we are Novorossiya!” one shouted.

“I love Russia!” declared another woman, declining to give her name. “I am for friendship with Russia,” she told AFP.

‘Ominous atmosphere’

Svitlana Nabokova, head of the Voice of Odessa group that regularly attends the small rallies, said many Russia supporters in the “divided city” were lying low due to death threats and fears of persecution.

She described how authorities searched her home and how activists from local pro-Ukraine “self-defence” units shot her in the leg with an air pistol after she organised a small protest against blackouts in the city.

“For us, there is no sense in these blasts,” she said. “It would be to the advantage of the authorities — as a pretext to ban even this,” she said, pointing at the feeble gathering watched by several policemen.

If the aim of the explosions was to sow distrust in the city, it has succeeded, said Oleksandr Bornyakov, a local lawmaker and member of the pro-Western Samopomich party, whose office this month became the latest to be targeted – the 28th such blast.

“It’s creating an ominous atmosphere,” he said, as builders worked around him to repair damage caused by the bomb, left by the front door last Thursday.

“People start to suspect one another. There is more irritation with the authorities.”

Bornyakov warned the stage was set for someone to exploit people’s fears.

“If somebody would appear to guarantee their safety, people would support him,” he said. “Maybe that’s the whole point?”

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