Mariupol Falls

Mariupol is ‘the story of a city that would not fall despite being destroyed’.

Ukrainian soldiers at a steel plant in Mariupol have surrendered. It’s the symbolic seal on Russia’s control, after weeks of a punishing assault against the strategic port city—but it is a victory that comes at a stunning cost.

On May 16, more than 260 Ukrainian fighters, including 53 seriously wounded soldiers, were evacuated from Azovstal Iron and Steel Works. They had been holed up there for weeks, the city’s last line of defence against Russian bombardment. As per Russian military sources 1700 Ukrainians in uniform surrendered at Mariupol. The massive steel plant was built during the Stalin era, spreading over 4 sq miles, with bunkers and other facilities to face war situation. In truth the huge industrial infrastructure that the present generation Ukrainians boast of was created in yester years when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. When the Chernobyl nuclear accident took place in 1986, the world knew it happened in the Soviet Union.

Now, Ukrainian fighters have been transported to Russia held-territory where they will ultimately be traded in a prisoner exchange for Russian soldiers. Russia has said that it will treat the troops “consistent with the respective international laws,” though some Russian officials called for the Ukrainian fighters to face trial as war criminals.

“The 82nd day of our defence is coming to an end,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address.

Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, was a city of more than 400,000 before Russia’s invasion. Seizing it was central to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declared objective that he is trying to “liberate” Russian speakers from Ukrainian control. The city has been under Russian siege for the length of the entire war. To finally take it, Russia had to effectively destroy it, and empty it of its people—killing thousands of civilians, and turning many of the rest to refugees.

The defiance of Ukrainian fighters at the steel plant—and earlier, that of the civilians, who were evacuated earlier this month from the plant—also denied Putin the symbolic victory he sought.

In May 2014, after Russian troops invaded the Donbas in support of separatists there, Russian-backed separatists temporarily seized control of Mariupol. They held on for a few weeks until Ukrainian government forces retook the city in June 2014.

In a lot of ways, this was a preview of why Mariupol was always going to be a critical city in any Russian attack on Ukraine—and why its fate ties into the larger themes of this war.

Ukraine, especially after 2014, saw Mariupol as key to any sort of defence it might need to mount against a Russian invasion. “The Ukrainian military has been preparing for exactly this for the last eight years,” said Mason Clark, lead Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

As the siege has played out, it became clear that the Ukrainian military did invest a lot of resources into the defence of the city, which enabled it to withstand weeks of Russian bombardment. Mariupol’s ability to hold on despite the onslaught also helped Ukraine in its pleas for foreign aid and military assistance, which the West is now delivering on in substantial ways.

But that defiance came at a cost: Mariupol’s unwillingness to crumble in the face of Russia’s attack made it the target of a relentless and indiscriminate military campaign.

Russia besieged the city in early March, bombarding residential areas, damaging water and electricity infrastructure, and cutting off supplies of food and medicine. Residents melted snow for water; bodies were strewn in the streets. In March, the Russian military bombed a maternity ward; weeks later, it bombed a theatre hall where hundreds of residents took shelter.

The full humanitarian toll is still difficult to assess, but last month, a top United Nations official described Mariupol as the “centre of hell.” This month, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross brokered a deal to safely evacuate civilians from Mariupol and the surrounding areas, including the 1,000 or so civilians also trapped in the steel plant, many with dwindling food, water, and supplies. The status of the potential tens of thousands left in the city is unclear.


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Vol 54, No. 49, Jun 5 - 11, 2022