ODESSA, Ukraine — Sitting comfortably in his home office, Boris Khersonsky seems remarkably composed for someone whose apartment was blown up.
Maybe it’s because the pro-Ukraine poet believes the February attack against him — in which explosives placed near the entrance went off around midnight — wasn’t actually meant to harm him.
After all, he hasn’t lived there for years. Anyone who did their research, he says, would’ve known that.
“It was meant basically to warn, not to kill,” Khersonsky said, “because those who want to kill, will kill.”
Late at night, with few people around. Clearly targeted, but with no casualties. That’s been the style of the recent bombings in this charming, seaside city.
Throughout the past few months, the picturesque veneer of tree-lined streets and classical, czarist-era architecture has been shattered by alarmingly frequent explosions.
Officials here believe Odessa is the target of a Kremlin-backed terror campaign to destabilize politically and socially fragile regions in Ukraine.
Besides the war-torn east, that means the northeastern region of Kharkiv, which borders Russia, as well as this strategic southern port city on the Black Sea.
Some of the explosions up north have been deadly: One recent blast killed four people at a pro-Ukraine rally in Kharkiv.
But the two dozen or so attacks that have rocked Odessa since last April appear carefully crafted to avoid casualties, observers say.
Most of the attacks have targeted the offices of volunteer groups and other pro-Ukraine organizations and businesses, usually using crude or homemade explosive devices. The rest, apparently more professional, have hit railways or military targets.
Ukrainian security officials insist that Russia’s secret services are behind the attacks in Odessa and Kharkiv. The officials claim that Russian operatives command local saboteurs with links to the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,000 have been killed since last year.
Ukraine says Russia’s engaging in a “hybrid war,” combining unconventional tactics — such as media blitzes, misinformation and acts of sabotage — with conventional warfare.
The Kremlin denies charges that it’s meddling in Ukraine.
But according to local security analysts, the bombing campaign here is Moscow’s way of keeping Kyiv on its heels and threatening the country’s fragile unity.
“It’s more about creating an atmosphere of tension and fear than a desire to cause real damage,” says Artem Filipenko, head of the Odessa branch of the National Institute of Strategic Studies, a think tank that advises the president.
That doesn’t mean the perpetrators aren’t sometimes dead serious.
On April 9, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said it arrested 29 members of an armed and “dangerous subversive group” intent on re-igniting a separatist movement that fizzled out in Odessa last spring. Several of the detainees were also planning a political assassination, officials claimed.
That followed the arrest earlier this month of three communist sympathizers the SBU says admitted to 10 of the attacks.
A chaotic underground
Adding a measure of chaos to the situation, there’s no single underground movement that coordinates the explosions, according to Odessa-based investigative journalist Sergei Dibrov. That’s in contrast to the bombings in Kharkiv, where officials say a group called the “Kharkiv Partisans” are behind attacks.
“For instance,” he said, “if in a single day there were three explosions in 10-minute intervals across the city [of Odessa], it would be much more effective from the point of view of PR.”
Establishing definitive links between the bombings and the local separatist movement, which failed to fully launch here last year, has been difficult.
Since day one, Dibrov says, the pro-Russian movement in this city was made up of disparate groups with wide-ranging goals and motivations.
Founded by Russian Empress Catherine the Great in the late 18th century, Odessa played an important role in the region the czars used to call “New Russia.” That term was briefly resurrected last spring by Russian President Vladimir Putin, making critics afraid that Moscow would seek to capture all of southeastern Ukraine.
Last May, a fierce showdown between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters here ended with a fire that killed dozens of mostly pro-Russians, and helped derail the local separatist movement.
As a result, most of Odessa’s outspoken or radical pro-Russian activists either fled or joined the fight against Ukrainian troops in the east, analysts say.
Most of those who stayed are “already under control” by the authorities, Dibrov said. That’s why he and other observers believe at least some of the attacks may have been staged by out-of-towners.
Or, according to SBU chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the assailants operated under the cover of several different groups. That was the case with the saboteurs arrested last week, whom local media reported were linked to veterans and Cossack organizations.
Last May’s tragic fire is still a bitterly divisive topic in Odessa. The ongoing investigation is fraught with controversy.
Pro-unity supporters here claim the incident was critical in discouraging many Odessans from further confrontation.
“No one here wants a repeat of the ‘eastern scenario,’ because they understand that nothing would be left of the city,” says Victoria Sibir, of the Self-Defense activist group.
But the wounds over the fire still run deep. Each month, small crowds of mourners gather at the site where it burned, the hulking Trade Union building downtown, to pay their respects to the dead and to denounce the government in Kyiv for cracking down on pro-Russian sympathizers.
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They also bemoan what they call Ukraine’s “punitive” operation in the east — the Kremlin’s preferred term for Kyiv’s fight against the separatists.
“They can’t possibly say they’re killing their own people,” said Tatyana, a pensioner at a ceremony marking the 11-month anniversary of the fire. “That’s why they invent the fact that Russians are fighting there.”
Analysts say the future stability of this city depends on how well the security services perform. So far, they’ve earned measured praise for their crackdown.
The SBU is painting a picture of success. An agency spokesman said last Friday that a clean-up operation foiled attacks planned for the Orthodox Easter weekend.
Still, most here believe the violent trend may not end soon.
“One needs to understand the following: Unfortunately, this war — undeclared, hybrid, whatever you want to call it — is for a very long period,” said Filipenko, the security analyst.
“There are only two sides to it: either we win, or Russia does.”