ODESSA—Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) investigators have arrested a pro-Russian agent accused of “plotting a series of information-psychological attacks in order to bring more chaos” to the major port city of Odessa, a Ukrainian security official told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
According to security officials who spoke with The Daily Beast, the agent was part of a Russian intelligence-affiliated group which identifies itself as “The Free City of Odessa.” The group is reportedly based in Odessa’s neighboring territory of Transnistria, a breakaway state where hundreds of Russian troops are stationed. The Free City of Odessa had recently published a video of camouflaged and masked guerrilla fighters firing guns at a photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the video, the members called for locals to “wake up and free NATO-occupied and Washington-controlled” Ukraine.
On Monday, Russian authorities made clear in Geneva and Brussels that if NATO does not give Moscow cast-iron guarantees that Ukraine “never ever” gains membership, the response would be of a “military-technical” nature. That same day, the SBU arrested the 47-year-old “agent of Russian intelligence” in Odessa, accused of setting fire to a Ukrainian Armed Forces vehicle and desecrating public property. According to a report detailing the man’s arrest, he was apprehended in the process of attempting to recruit another operative to wreak havoc on the city.
“The agent was a foreigner who periodically came to Ukraine on behalf of the Russian secret services,” and those responsible for planning the attacks are “representatives of Russian military intelligence operating from the territory of the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldavian Republic,” the report noted. According to the SBU, the agent had bigger plans in the works and was allegedly planning attacks on NGO offices in the city next.
“The Russian spy arrived in Odessa in December,” Odessa security observer Alexander Kovalenko told The Daily Beast. “Being very close to Transnistria, our city remains a target for sabotage and terrorist attacks. The situation is dangerous.”
Ukrainian security services have remained “on high alert” in Odessa in the weeks leading up to the Russia-NATO talks in Geneva, which commenced on Wednesday. So far, Both NATO and Russian officials concluded there was no significant progress in de-escalating the risk of a war in Ukraine amid fears of a Russian invasion. “There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia on this issue,” NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg told journalists on Wednesday. “There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe.”
“These terrorist attacks on Odessa are plotted by the Russian intelligence, GRU, in order to artificially create an image of a separatist region here,” Ukrainian military and security expert, Ruslan Forostyak, told The Daily Beast in an interview in Odessa on Tuesday.
Odessa, which was founded by Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1794, has been a vital strategic point for Russia over the years. On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned NATO against flying planes over Odessa’s port, which is less than 300 miles away from Crimea, demanding the alliance meet Russia’s demands. “If this doesn’t happen… we very much don’t want to have a situation where NATO countries, led by the U.S., make that kind of mistake and once again act to undermine their own security and the security of the whole European continent,” Ryabkov said at the press conference in Geneva.
Moscow is not hiding the fact that there is a plan in reserve to bring its army into Odessa. “In case NATO refuses to de-occupy Ukraine today, Moscow [may] recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as [independent] republics, put its military forces in Donbas and maybe even proceed to clean the Black Sea shore from the anti-Russian Ukraine created by the United States by connecting Odessa and Transnistria with Russian Crimea,” pro-Kremlin politico Sergei Markov told The Daily Beast. “There is definitely a pro-Russian underground in Odessa, they will act and fight to liberate Ukraine from the junta.”
Many Ukrainians would disagree with Moscow’s view of an American “occupation” in their country. NATO ships and planes have hovered over Odessa during Sea Breeze international military exercises since 1997.
“Sometimes NATO planes fly really low over the city to demonstrate to all sorts of pro-Russian powers, to remind them that we have been NATO's partners for decades,” Odessan media expert and businessman Boris Khodorkovsky told The Daily Beast. “It is too late to call for NATO to get out of Odessa after nearly three decades. Odessa citizens take their children to see NATO ships parked in our port every summer and listen to the American navy orchestra. People love to visit NATO ships often open for tourist tours and frankly, we feel safer.”
Odessa has a population of about one million people, most of whom are Russian speakers, and some do indeed feel nostalgic for the Soviet era. “Everybody in Odessa knows that our mayor Trukhanov had a Russian passport, so we joke that if Russians attack Odessa, he will be the first to run and hug Russian soldiers,” an Odessa university student, Yekatina Zhukova, told The Daily Beast.
“The danger is right here in Odessa: I have never heard our mayor publicly say that Crimea is Ukrainian or that Russia is the aggressor,” Zhukova told The Daily Beast. But “I don’t think there is any underground movement of partisans here who would ever support Russian paratroopers landing in Odessa. It still hurts us to remember murders, people dying in our city center in May 2014,” said Zhukova, referring to bloody clashes between protesters supporting Ukraine’s independence and pro-Russian rebels that took place that month, which left dozens dead. Zhukova described the massacre as “an open wound.”
Still, millions of Ukrainians hope to wake up without news of more soldiers dying in a war with Russia. “We have been a target of the Russian information war since 2014 but as a result of the ongoing violence our military forces have grown more professional and better trained; besides it is obvious for everybody in Ukraine that NATO is our long-term partner,” Ukrainian military analyst Volodymyr Kryzhanovsky told The Daily Beast.
“We don’t believe that NATO would ever give Russia a guarantee and give up on Ukraine. We still count on the talks in Geneva to reduce the tensions with Russia: The war takes men away from families, fathers away from children.”