Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has claimed that Russian forces were preparing to bombard the major port city of Odesa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
“They are preparing to bomb Odesa,” Zelenskyy said in a televised address on Sunday.
“Russians have always come to Odesa. They have always felt only warmth in Odesa. Only sincerity. And now what? Bombs against Odesa? Artillery against Odesa? Missiles against Odesa?” he continued, without elaborating. “It will be a war crime. It will be a historical crime.”
There was no immediate comment by Russia, which launched an invasion against Ukraine from air, land and sea on February 24.
Russian forces have since made progress, overrunning the city of Kherson and besieging the port of Mariupol, but Odesa has so far been largely spared.
About a million people live in Odesa, a cosmopolitan harbour on Ukraine’s southern coast with both Ukrainian and Russian speakers and Bulgarian and Jewish minorities.
The Russian advance from occupied Crimea has in part turned east to link up with Russian-backed separatists and to seize the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol.
But a section of the forces has also headed west to Kherson, on the road towards Odesa. The city is also close to the Moldovan border and the disputed region of Transnistria.
“It’s the biggest seaport; 70 percent of our exports go through the sea,” Hanna Shelest, director of security programmes at the Ukrainian Prism think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
Reporting from Lviv, in western Ukraine, Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull said a potential seizure of Odesa, along with other southern port cities, would “effectively turn Ukraine into a landlocked country”.
“It has been in the air for days now that the possibility is there – that the Russian forces that have been extending their gains north of Crimea, through Kherson and onwards through the town of Mykolaiv, may well try to double back on Odesa and join up with a naval landing from elements of the Black Sea fleet that have been hovering on the horizon there for several days,” he added.
“That’s been talked about – whether Zelenskyy is referring to specific intelligence or not it’s not clear.”
During the first 11 days of the conflict, Russian forces have also advanced on the capital, Kyiv, from the northwest and northeast, while another group bombarded the northern city of Kharkiv.
Several cities have been bombed and shelled and the United Nations says more than 1.5 million civilians have been driven from their homes by the fighting.