The fall of Mariupol

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

Mariupol has fallen after nearly three months of relentless assault. More than 200 Ukrainian fighters who had been holding out have now been taken to territory controlled by the Russians. The southern port city has been a key target of Russian attack and now gives Russia control of most of Ukraine’s coastline on the Black sea.

Russian forces surrounded Maripul in early march causing immense damage and destruction to most of the city. Hundreds of Ukrainian troops managed to hold out in the huge steelworks situated near the city and the port area.

Control of Mariupol provides Russia with a land bridge to Crimea as well as complete control of the Sea of Azov, effectively cutting off Ukraine’s maritime trade. It also provides Vladimir Putin with a propaganda coup.

However, the capture of the city has been slow and bloody. Mariupol had a ringside seat to Ukraine’s simmering conflict with Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions that comprise the neighbouring area known as Donbas.

If Russia maintains control of Mariupol for an extended period of time, denying Ukraine access to the Sea of Azov, Ukraine’s finances and economic sustainability will suffer, hampering the country’s ability to sell and ship its products.

A city under attack

Residents leaving Mariupol described a lack of food, water, heat and communication. Many people hid in basements for weeks as shells and airstrikes rained down on the city.

The Russian assault on the city included the bombing of a maternity and children’s hospital. President Volodymyr Zelensky described the attack as a war crime: “What kind of a country is Russia, that it is afraid of hospitals and maternity wards and destroys them?” he asked. In response, the Russian Embassy in the UK claimed an image of a heavily pregnant and injured woman fleeing the hospital was staged.

Some of the war’s most shocking moments have occurred in Mariupol, including a strike on the city’s Drama Theater, where more than 1,000 civilians were sheltering.

As Russian forces encircled Mariupol, the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, a massive four-square-mile (10-square-kilometer) plant in the city’s southeast, became the last stronghold of the Ukrainian resistance. The city council reported on April 18 that there were still 1,000 civilians hiding at the site, which was a maze of tunnels and workshops.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, over 1,700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered since then, including dozens of injured soldiers being treated at hospitals in Ukraine’s Donetsk region controlled by Russian and separatist forces.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have been registered as POWs. It is unclear exatcly how many Ukrainian soldiers remain in Mariupol. “The evacuation mission continues, it is overseen by our military and intelligence. The most influential international mediators are involved,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“The 83 days of the defense of Mariupol will go down in history as Thermopylae of the 21st century,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president. “The Azovstal defenders thwarted the enemy’s plans to seize eastern Ukraine, drew away enormous numbers of enemy forces, and changed the course of the war.”

The city’s identity

Mariupol’s complex identity is not unique in today’s Ukraine, a country that was an integral part of the Soviet Union until communism fell apart at the end of the 1980s. And it’s unlikely that anyone who identified as “Russian” or “Soviet” wanted to see their city destroyed in a violent attempt to re-enter Moscow’s orbit.

When fighting first erupted in Mariupol in 2014, the government briefly lost control after clashes with pro-Russian protesters. In January 2015, rebels launched a devastating rocket attack on the city’s eastern outskirts, killing nearly 30 civilians. Even as the war wore on, the sound of artillery booming in the distance became part of Mariupol’s daily soundscape.

However, the city has moved on. Mariupol was briefly designated as the administrative capital of the Donetsk Oblast by the Ukrainian government. People began to migrate from rebel-held areas, and the city began to attract investment.

All of this brought back memories of World War II, when Nazis murdered Jews and Soviet partisans, and the Holodomor in the early 1930s when Stalin forced Ukraine’s peasants into collective farms and seized all of their grain and livestock.




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