MARIUPOL, Ukraine—The world is finally paying attention to Galina Odnorog.
On behalf of the port of Mariupol, the 50-year-old Ukrainian volunteer activist has been coordinating a media outreach campaign since August 2017, trying to alert Western countries to the threat posed by Russia to Ukraine-bound shipping traffic in the Sea of Azov.
“Russia has blockaded our Sea of Azov ports. It’s an act of economic warfare, and we want the world to pay attention,” Odnorog said during an interview in Mariupol, a Ukrainian port city of half a million people on the Sea of Azov, which is within earshot of the ongoing land war in eastern Ukraine.
For more than a year, Odnorog’s information campaign largely fell on deaf ears—particularly among Western media outlets. That changed on Nov. 25 when Russian forces seized three Ukrainian naval ships near the Kerch Strait and took 24 Ukrainian sailors prisoner.
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The high-stakes naval confrontation—in which Russian forces fired on the Ukrainian vessels—spurred Ukraine to put its military on full alert and declare martial law in 10 border territories deemed most vulnerable to a Russian invasion.
Suddenly, the world’s media spotlight was on Ukraine, and Russia’s ongoing harassment of Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov was front-page news. Overnight, Odnorog was in high demand, fielding one interview after another with foreign journalists.
“It’s been exhausting,” she said with a grin. “And, actually, I’m scared. I understand that my answers can influence international policy toward Ukraine. I understand the responsibility I now have, and how important it is to tell the truth to the world. Above all, it’s important for our military, who are giving their lives for our freedom.”
On this night, Odnorog is at a hip café in central Mariupol called “Bread du Soleil.” She walks in a bit flustered but is effusively polite and immediately talkative. She sits leaning forward with her hands folded on the tabletop before her. Her fingers fidget as she talks, not nervously, but with a pent-up energy, like she’s racing against the clock to say everything she wants to say. Above her, origami snowflakes dangle from the ceiling—it’s Christmas season, after all, even on the edge of a war zone.
Odnorog exudes a wide-eyed air of disbelief at all the attention she’s received from foreign journalists (this correspondent included) during the preceding week. But she’s been working toward this moment for more than a year. Finally, she has the world’s attention. And she’s not going to let the opportunity go to waste.
“In August 2017 we understood the Kerch Strait bridge would be a threat to our economy,” Odnorog said. “My mission is to attract attention to this problem. Ukraine needs international support. We can’t solve this problem on our own.”
Thus, this past week has been a redemption of sorts for Odnorog, who has been volunteering to help fight Russian propaganda since the war in Ukraine began in the spring of 2014. Still, the recent naval confrontation was also a sober reminder that the 4.5-year-old war—in which more than 10,300 Ukrainians have died—is likely far from over.
“For me, it’s impossible to live the life I led before the war,” Odnorog said. “I don’t want more than 10,000 Ukrainians to have died for nothing.”
In May 2018, Russia completed a bridge over the Kerch Strait, establishing a land connection between mainland Russia and Crimea, a peninsular territory Russia invaded and seized from Ukraine in early 2014.
Since the bridge’s completion, Russian naval forces stepped up harassment of Ukrainian merchant vessels at the Kerch Strait and in the Sea of Azov, a key trade route for Ukraine.
Back in August 2017, officials at Mariupol’s commercial port had already recognized the Russian project as a threat to Mariupol’s economy. Yet, the Ukrainian government in Kyiv remained largely mute on the subject. So, port officials enlisted Odnorog to help sound an alarm, which they hoped would attract Western media attention.
“I’m a public figure, I’m a representative of the government. So it’s good to combine my efforts with those of civil society,” Aleksandr Oleynik, the director of Mariupol’s commercial sea port, told The Daily Signal during an interview at his seaside office.
Oleynik praised Odnorog’s work, underscoring its value to countering Russian disinformation regarding the ongoing confrontation in the Sea of Azov.
“It’s essential to give an objective perception of what’s happening here,” Oleynik said.
Specifically, Odnorog and Oleynik both argue that Ukrainian vessels have the absolute right of free passage through the Kerch Strait, according to a 2003 maritime treaty between Russia and Ukraine.
For her part, Odnorog is a volunteer activist and not paid for her work. She says, however, that she is motivated by a “love for Ukraine” to manage—pro bono—the kind of media blitz that Ukraine’s government should have launched on its own volition years ago.
“Now, we as activists perform the function of government,” Odnorog said. “We’re the ones doing what the government should do. Information warfare is one of Ukraine’s biggest problems.”
Following its 2014 takeover of Crimea, Russia organized a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and eventually sent thousands of its regular troops into Ukraine’s embattled eastern Donbas region.
Today, the war in the Donbas is ongoing along a 250-mile-long, entrenched front line. More than 10,300 Ukrainians have so far died in what remains Europe’s only ongoing land war.
The Nov. 25 naval confrontation effectively shattered the military stalemate that has held the land war at bay since a shaky, February 2015 cease-fire, known as Minsk II, went into effect. Ukrainian officials warn the maritime crisis could signal a major escalation of the ongoing military conflict.
“First, Russia annexed Crimea. Now, Russia wants the whole Sea of Azov,” said Oleynik, the director of Mariupol’s commercial sea port.
Mariupol is within one of those 10 Ukrainian regions currently under martial law. But you’d hardly know it. There are troops on the platform at the train station and occasionally on the streets—but it’s always been like that in Mariupol since the war began.
Traffic is flowing as usual, businesses are open, and students are in school. Christmas lights are strung over the city’s main thoroughfare of “Peace Avenue”—formerly known as “Lenin Avenue.”
Life goes on, as it has in Mariupol for the past 4.5 years, despite the ongoing shelling of the trench war only about 10 miles east of the city’s limits.
“It’s been a crazy four and a half years,” Odnorog said of living within earshot of the war since the spring of 2014.
Odnorog is a businesswoman by trade, formerly working in the wholesale food trade. When the war began, the mother of two understood right away that Russia was weaponizing propaganda and Ukraine needed to fight back. So she volunteered to “tell the world the truth.”
At the war’s outset, Odnorog’s activism focused on educating the Russian people about the covert war their leaders were waging in Ukraine. In particular, Odnorog said she appealed to the mothers of Russian soldiers. Her efforts never resonated, however.
“In 2014, we could still consider the Russian nation as our brothers,” Odnorog said. “But we realized that everything that Russia does to Ukraine is tacitly approved of by the Russian people.”
Thus, as the war matured, Odnorog changed her messaging strategy.
“Our work has shifted from changing Russian opinions to changing world opinions,” Odnorog said. “And we don’t just need to inform, we need to shout.”