Russia’s control of the strategic port city of Mariupol could increase economic pressure on Ukraine while boosting the morale of troops involved in the operation.
The port city of Mariupol has been the site of one of the most intense fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops for the past three weeks. The city government said 80 percent of Mariupol’s infrastructure was damaged, some of it completely destroyed. The city currently has no water or electricity, and some 400,000 residents are believed to remain trapped by fighting and shelling.
The Russian army’s end to the siege in Mariupol, which began on March 1, was met with heavy resistance from the city’s defenses. After a three-week siege, the Russian army issued an ultimatum on March 21 asking the Mariupol defenders to lay down their arms and surrender.
Ukraine rejected the ultimatum, and fighting escalated shortly after. The Mariupol city council said on March 22 that “two super-powerful bombs” exploded and shook the area during an effort to evacuate civilians. “The enemy wants to eliminate Mariupol and turn it to ashes,” the city council said in a statement, without specifying the loss of life or infrastructure.
According to experts, Ukraine will suffer a severe economic blow if it loses control of Mariupol. Taking Mariupol would also be a symbolic victory for Russia, given Russia’s slow progress in the rest of Ukraine.
“Mariupol has both practical and symbolic significance for Russia,” commented Andrei Yanitsky, an expert at the Kyiv University of Economics. The city on the coast of the Sea of Azov is part of a corridor connecting the Crimean peninsula with the Donbass, a breakaway region in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s a big port city and a base for the Ukrainian armed forces. So if Russia wants to build an overland corridor from Donbass to Crimea, they need to control the city,” Initsky said. Mariupol is about 30 kilometers from the Russian-backed breakaway territory of Donbass.
According to Professor Alex Bellamy of the Institute for Conflict and Peace at the University of Queensland in Australia, Mariupol is currently under attack by the Russian military in several directions.
“Russia’s strategic goal appears to be to combine forces in Crimea with advances in the Donbass to form a seamless Russian-controlled territory off Ukraine’s southeastern coast,” he commented. “Mariupol’s position clearly stands in the way of this goal.”
Graeme Gill, an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney and an expert on Russian politics, said that by taking control of Mariupol, Russia could build a land corridor from Russia to Crimea, which would make the passage more convenient.
“If such a corridor is established and maintained, it will significantly improve Russia’s access to Crimea, which is currently only accessible by sea and a bridge in the Kerch Strait,” he said.
On the other hand, Mariupol is a center for metallurgy, heavy machinery manufacturing and ship repair. Ukraine’s largest steel mill, owned by the country’s leading metallurgical group Metinvest, is located in Mariupol. One of them, Azovstal, was badly damaged in fighting over the past week.
Mariupol also has the largest commercial port in the Sea of Azov, and Ukraine exports grain, steel and heavy machinery. In 2021, Ukrainian exports from the port of Mariupol are mainly sold to European and Middle Eastern countries such as Italy, Lebanon or Turkey.
After the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the port of Mariupol was severely affected by the loss of transit cargo in old markets, including Russia. After annexing Crimea to its territory, Russia built a bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland.
In 2014, Mariupol, the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, withstood an attack by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. After Ukraine lost control of its capital Donetsk, Mariupol received a large number of migrants from the separatist-held Donbas region, more than 96,000 as of 2019.
Not only does Mariupol lie within the territory claimed by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, but it is also part of the vision of a “new Russia” conceived by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which stretches from east to west extend. Southern Ukraine is along the Black Sea coast, in which he considers “the land of Russian history”.
Taking control of Mariupol would also be a huge symbolic victory for Russia’s efforts to “de-fascise” Ukraine. Mariupol was once the base of Battalion Azov, a paramilitary force rooted in Ukraine’s far-right and neo-Nazi groups.
Although the Azov battalion is only a small part of the Ukrainian National Guard, Russia claims Azov fighters are responsible for killing civilians and sabotaging attacks in Mariupol.
The fall of Mariupol will also have major psychological effects on both sides of the conflict. A victory for Mariupol would give the Kremlin an opportunity to show that Russia is making some progress and achieving the goals set in the military operation.
As for Ukraine, the loss of Mariupol would be a major blow, not only strategically and economically, but also to the morale of the troops involved in the fighting. “It would be the first major Ukrainian city to be successfully controlled by Russia, and after Kherson, the region is of much less strategic importance and largely unprotected,” commentator Frank Gardner said. BBC confirm.
Takeo (according to Guardian, BBC, ABC News)