Unfortunately, it is a feature of military conflicts that the fate of a single city becomes, for example, a whole war. Over the past 30 years you could identify the besieged cities of Sarajevo, Aleppo and now Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov in south-eastern Ukraine.
80 percent of this major industrial and port city lies in ruins, according to Ukrainian reports. A quarter and probably more of the 400,000 residents have left and many thousands may be dead.
Refugees from the city paint apocalyptic scenes as they relate how, in just under two weeks, all the necessities of modern life were lost, from food to electricity to running water. The mobile phone signal was the last to go, so that only a hill on the outskirts remained where one could make calls.
The magnitude of the catastrophe can be gauged from the fact that even the Russian side speaks of a “terrible humanitarian catastrophe”, although it blames the “terror” unleashed by the other side. Ukraine had summarily rejected a proposal to surrender, with officials insisting they would fight to the end.
Which raises two big questions.
What made Mariupol the bloodiest flashpoint of this month-old war? And if Mariupol becomes the model, is it perhaps already the model for how Russia wants to fight from now on?
The first question is easier to answer than the second. The main reason why Russia is so desperate to take Mariupol is geography. It is key for Russia to link Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, to the two Donbass regions – Donetsk and Lugansk – which have been held by pro-Russian separatists for the same eight years.
Control of Mariupol — or the devastated territory it once stood on — allows Russia unhindered passage from Russia’s Crimea border. Of course, in times of war, this simplifies the delivery of arms and humanitarian aid. It would result in the Sea of Azov becoming an exclusively Russian sea, rather than being shared between Russia and Ukraine – often acrimonious since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But perhaps the greater advantage – and the original reason why Russia prioritized the capture of Mariupol – was to consolidate its hold in Crimea and improve its security and supply routes. Russia’s first step in 2016 was the construction of a bridge, completed in record time, to connect Crimea to mainland Russia. But it could only alleviate an acute water shortage on the peninsula. Securing the land corridor would mean Russia could reconnect mainland water supplies, solving a problem that hampered Russian occupation of the territory from the start.
But there are other reasons why Russia is targeting the attack on Mariupol. One is revenge. In the fighting that followed President Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014, Mariupol was captured and held by anti-Kyiv forces, only to be recaptured later in the year after nearly six weeks of fighting. An attempt by the Separatists to recover it failed. Here it is a matter of avenging defeats.
Another reason is that the forces that prevailed then and still control part of the otherwise surrounded city belong to the Azov Battalion. When Russians speak, how Putin said in his declaration of war on the “denazification” of Ukraine last month that the Azov Battalion is part of what they have in mind.
The group, which began as a voluntary paramilitary group and is distinguished by yellow and black insignia resembling a swastika, is now incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard and has pledged to support President Zelenskyy. However, like some other former volunteer groups, it is seen by many to have its roots in the far-right nationalist groups that supported the German occupiers against the Red Army in the late 1930s and 1940s. The line between far-right nationalism and Ukrainian patriotism can be difficult to draw.
From considerations of Russia’s national security to ensuring supplies to Crimea, and from avenging an eight-year military defeat to eliminating what many Russians see as dangerous Nazi tendencies, Mariupol brings many different elements to the Russia-Ukraine conflict together and helps explain why both sides seem ready to fight to the end.
For Russia, control of Mariupol is a primary goal of its invasion. For Ukraine, the outcome will determine not only whether it retains access to the Sea of Azov, but also how much of Ukraine will be left when the fighting is over.
And that ties into the second question. After Russia effectively gutted a port city of 400,000 and held perhaps half the population captive in conditions worse than medieval, is Russia preparing to replicate it elsewhere? Does Russia intend for Mariupol to stand up as a warning to other cities – notably Ukraine’s main port of Odessa and the capital Kyiv – if they refuse to surrender, and Ukraine’s current leaders should they continue their fight? Or could Mariupol remain unique, reflecting its location and recent history?
The answer likely depends on many factors, including Russia’s short- and long-term goals. It could be – although the scale of the initial invasion makes this seem unlikely – that Russia’s main objective was always and only the corridor to Crimea. On the other hand, given the Ukrainian resistance, Russia might now settle for that. In this case, the capture of Mariupol could allow Russia to claim victory and end its campaign. Ukraine would oppose any territorial gains for Russia from an illegal invasion, but that could be the price to pay for ending the war.
On the other hand, if Russia’s goals are broader and its campaign is not going as badly as is often portrayed, then Mariupol takes on added importance as a gateway not only to Crimea but also to Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, including its main port. Odessa, to all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper, or even to all of Ukraine including Kyiv. As such, control of Mariupol could determine control of Ukraine.
Although it is difficult to discern any pattern, the current treatment of Mariupol appears to be of a different order than anything inflicted elsewhere. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was badly damaged, with iconic buildings destroyed, including the regional government headquarters. But the city has not changed hands and fighting seems to have died down. There is even some evidence that Russian forces prefer to bypass populated areas rather than destroy or conquer them – whether this is voluntary or in response to Ukrainian resistance is difficult to judge.
Unfortunately, there will be no answers to these questions until the battle of Mariupol is decided and it is clear what Russia intends to do next. (© Independent News Service)
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/besieged-city-of-mariupol-could-be-putins-invasion-template-41489337.html The besieged city of Mariupol could be Putin’s template for attack