Ukrainians fight to hold the port city of Odessa as exodus out of the country persists

Correction: This video misspelled the name of Gennadiy Trukhanov, the mayor of Odessa, Ukraine. We regret the error.

The twelfth day of Russia's invasion in Ukraine saw both sides meeting again on small steps toward allowing people out, but brutal violence is a central feature of the war. More than 1.7 million Ukrainians have now left their homes for surrounding countries, and the UN says more than 400 civilians have died in the fighting. Nick Schifrin reports from the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A day of tenuous diplomacy and much more death in Ukraine.

    The 12th day of Russia's invasion saw both sides meeting again on small steps toward allowing people out, but brutal violence has become the central feature of the war. More than 1.7 million Ukrainians have now left their homes for surrounding countries. The United Nations says more than 400 civilians have died in the fighting, although they admit that is likely a drastic undercount.

    Meantime, the U.S. said it estimates 4,500 Russian soldiers have been killed. One city that has not yet caught in the crossfire is Odessa in Ukraine's far southwest on the Black Sea.

    That's where Nick Schifrin is tonight.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Defending Ukraine's third largest city begins on its beaches. Odessans fill sandbags along the Black Sea to defend the city from Russian invasion.

    They're all volunteers, an assembly line of workers for whom now this is their full-time job. In peaceful times, this was a yacht club; 58-year-old Albert Kabakov is the manager.

    Do you fear that Odessa could be targeted very soon?

  • Albert Kabakov, Manager, Odessa Yacht Club (through translator):

    Yes, we're very afraid, because we understand that the aggressor, the Russian army, has crossed all red lines. When they shot a nuclear power plant, when they shoot at humanitarian corridors, I have no doubt whatsoever that they will behave in the same way here, and only we can stop them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 11 days, they have filled 300,000 bags, their battle cry, the national anthem. As this chorus still rings loud on this beach, in the city center, it has fallen silent.

    This is the heart of the city, usually a bustling and loud street. But you can see everything here is completely closed. And, at the end of this street, Odessa's world's famous opera house, sandbagged, protected. This city, this country, Europe, has not seen this image in 80 years.

    The last time Odessa's opera house came under siege was World War II, when German-allied Romanian troops occupied the city. Today, barbed wire and beach-filled sandbags protect active-duty soldiers deployed inside their home towns, streets normally full of cafes now strewn with anti-armor vehicle barricades known as hedgehogs. And hotels are protected by tires and Odessans who haven't lost their trademark humor, like Valentina Volanskaya, who, when I asked her age, said, people don't live that long.

    Valentina Volanskaya, Resident of Odessa (through translator): Our city has been standing, is standing, and will always be standing. You understand? That's it. Odessa is the center of the world. You should know that. Why did you come here if you don't know that?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    She walked away on daunted and protected by local commander 23-year-old Olexei, who would only give his first name. He put on his first military patch when he was 15, his entire military career dedicated to fighting Russia.

    How important is Odessa to Ukraine?

  • Olexei, Ukrainian Soldier (through translator), Ukrainian Soldier (through translator):

    Odessa is Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why? Explain that

    (LAUGHTER)

  • OLEXEI (through translator):

    Odessa is our home. And it's a strategic target. There's a port here. There's an airfield here. We have to defend this by any means necessary.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And by anyone who's able.

    Oleg Diyanov is 57.

    Why is this your war to fight?

  • Oleg Diyanov, Ukrainian Soldier (through translator):

    Because this is my war. We are all citizens of Ukraine. We are all defending our country. How else would it be?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A senior U.S. defense official says Russia has now invaded Ukraine with nearly 100 percent of the 150,000-plus troops deployed to the border and occupied what's in dark pink. It is making the most progress in the south. Russian troops currently encircle Mariupol, where Ukraine exports agricultural coal and steel.

    Last Thursday, they occupied Kherson, a major shipbuilding hub with access to the coast. And now they're advancing toward Mykolaiv, about 80 miles to Odessa's east. Capturing Odessa would cut Kyiv off from the sea.

  • Gennadiy Trukhanov, Mayor of Odessa, Ukraine (through translator),:

    Odessa is considered the southern capital of Ukraine. There is a military term, the high ground. That is how they see Odessa.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gennadiy Trukhanov is Odessa's mayor. He says he's worried about a desert being invaded on three sides, from the Black Sea, from the east, and from the west to be the breakaway republic in Moldova, Transnistria.

    But he says he does not expect aerial bombardment.

  • Gennadiy Trukhanov (through translator):

    They want Odessa intact, Odessa's infrastructure, architecture and strategic meaning. They want all of those undamaged. That's why I think Odessa will be subject to a special operation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Odessa was founded in the late 18th century by one of Russia's greatest rulers, Catherine the Great. It was one of the Russian empire's most important ports. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used that history to claim he's — quote — "liberating" Russian speakers in Ukrainian cities.

    Trukhanov dispels that lie.

  • Gennadiy Trukhanov (through translator):

    We did not ask anyone to come here, did not invite anyone to come with weapons and occupy us. We did not ask anyone to liberate us, help us or save us from anyone. So we will be defending our city.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mykolaiv is the last city to the east between Odessa and Russian ground troops. And Russia continues to bombard civilian targets.

    Leonid Fisyienko filmed what was left of his apartment, survivors in shock. And Ukraine said Russian troops are advancing toward the Yuzhnoukrainsk nuclear power plant 75 miles north Mykolaiv. Russia had offered humanitarian corridors today out of Mariupol, Kyiv, Sumy and Kharkiv. But Ukrainians would have had to flee to Russia or ally Belarus, the very government's trying to kill them.

    And, in Kharkiv, where the streets still look bombed out, and Kyiv, where residents trying to flee yesterday were killed by Russian shells, nobody took Moscow up on its offer.

    But in Belarus today, Ukraine and Russia met for a third round of talks. There was no sign of any breakthrough. Back in Odessa, volunteers converted this food market into a collection point for essentially destined for the front. This used to be an oysters and sparkling wine bar. Now it's full of bags of clothes and basics that soldiers often lack.

    It's run by 45-year-old Nikolai Vitnyanskiy.

  • Nikolai Vitnyanskiy, Odessa Volunteer:

    The city has completely changed because al the people you can see here, for example, and everywhere, they are civilian, and there's — it's hipsters. You see, these is hipsters.

    But now they're ready to stay for Odessa.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Odessa historically was a little bit pro-Russian or at least mixed. How much Ukrainian pride is there today in Odessa?

  • Nikolai Vitnyanskiy:

    A hundred percent. This is really pride now to understand that, just two weeks ago, people thought that the Russian army is the best. No, our army is the best and proud.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That pride is evident in everything here, from how Ukrainians talk about their own country to have think about Russia.

    In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and instigated a war in Eastern Ukraine, only about 30 percent of Odessans considered themselves Ukrainian, according to the mayor's numbers. Judy, that number today of Odessans who consider themselves Ukrainian is 80 percent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such great conversations you have had.

    Nick, we're hearing the people of Odessa talk to you. Do they believe they can withstand the Russian onslaught?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The mayor certainly does, in part because he does not think that Russia will resort to the kind of indiscriminate shelling that we have seen in other cities in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.

    But that means that there could be urban warfare here, street-to-street fighting between Russians and Ukrainians. And that would undoubtedly cause major damage. But it's clear, talking to U.S. officials, that they do not believe that the seizure of Odessa can begin until Russian forces takeover Mykolaiv about 80 miles to the east.

    And so far, Judy, Ukrainian soldiers have managed to resist Russian efforts to occupy that city.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, I know you have been reporting for days and days.

    What is your sense now of just how dire the humanitarian situation has grown for people across the country?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, there's that big number, 1.7 million people. That is more than 3 percent of the country who have felt that they had to become refugees, cross international borders with only what they could carry or they could put in their cars, and half that number are children.

    And, of course, there's an unknown number of Ukrainians who had to flee their homes, but are still inside Ukraine. But that number is undoubtedly high.

    But there's another number tonight. One of Zelenskyy's top aides today said that the number of towns and villages across the country that don't have — that doesn't — that don't have electricity, plumbing, power is 1,000; 1,000 villages and towns across the country don't offer the basic services that so many Ukrainians need.

    And, Judy, this is only week two of a war that U.S., Western officials fear could last months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very, very tough.

    Nick Schifrin reporting tonight from Odessa.

    Thank you, Nick.

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