Why Conquering Mariupol Is Key To Russia's Donbas Strategy
This final bombing assault on the port city coincides with the beginning of a major land campaign across much of the territory of Donbas. The bloody siege of Mariupol is a sign of how Putin intends to carry out his quest for the entire nation.
Every day could be the last for Mariupol, where the remaining survivors have been sitting in basements for 50 days. On Monday, the Russians began dropping multi-ton bombs on one of the largest shelters tucked in the basements of the Azovstal steel plant, where 1,000 people are believed to be hiding.
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This all-out bombing campaign on the port city coincides with the beginning of a major land assault across the much of the territory of Donbas, of which Mariupol is historically one of the key ports. With a pre-war population of about 430,000, Mariupol sits in the south of the Donetsk region, connecting the wider Donbas to Crimea. Since 2014, it also served as host to many of the refugees from the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions during the ongoing war with pro-Russian separatists.
Indeed, it was Mariupol, back in 2014, that had offered desperate resistance and remained part of Ukraine, refusing to join the so-called LDNR ( Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics) aligned with Moscow. Mariupol has turned out twice to be an unpleasant surprise for Putin, who eight years ago was convinced that, along with Kharkiv and Odessa, Russian-speaking cities would welcome the Russian military as liberators.
Today, Mariupol is paying for its adamant political stance with thousands of deaths and the near total destruction of the city.
Ideology drives Putin
There is a potential economic rationale for the Russian president's military focus in Donbas: natural resources, commercial access to ports, etc. But ultimately, victory for Putin over any of Ukraine's cities, as well as over the nation as a whole, is built on ideology.
There is no better way to understand this than looking at Mariupol: a city resists, so Putin's objective is to annihilate it in its current form. The presumption is that the Russians will go to whatever lengths necessary to conquer cities and territory, particularly now in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine that Moscow has been aiming to bring into its fold since 2014. Mariupol has become the symbol of that total war approach that will now be carried out in Donbas.
We have seen what cities liberated from the Russian army look like.
Still, there are short-term benefits for Moscow if Mariupol falls: It will free thousands of Russian soldiers who will immediately fan out to the rest of Donbas. It will also open the road and communication with Crimea, from where additional forces and supplies will arrive.
The longer Mariupol is held, the lower the chances Russia has of rapidly conquering territory across Donbas, even if that means more people will die. This is not some kind of military dilemma, but a human disaster for the entire Ukrainian nation, as thousands of civilians are waiting to be saved in both Mariupol and elsewhere in Donbas, unable to leave their towns and villages under heavy fire from the Russian army.
We have seen what cities liberated from the Russian army look like: scattered corpses, mass graves, evidence of torture, and inhumanity of the occupants. It is frightening to imagine what we will see in Mariupol.
A destroyed Mariupol street on April 9.
According to current estimates, there are still about 100,000 civilians in the city. Mariupol's mayor Vadym Boichenko believes that as many as 20,000 local residents have been killed during the bombing, and the number of homes destroyed is unknown. There are reports in the Ukrainian press that the invading forces have been covering up their atrocities by burning people's bodies in mobile crematoriums.
There is also a diplomatic calculus tied to the fate of Mariupol. The greater the death and destruction, the lower the chance that the entire Ukraine war has of ending in a peace treaty. "The destruction of our military, our guys [in Mariupol] will put an end to all negotiations — a blind corner, because we do not trade territories and our people," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said over the weekend.
And at the time of writing, the Ukrainians continue to resist. The Azov battalion, the last defenders of the city, have said they will not surrender. And according to a British intelligence report, "Russian commanders are worried about how long it will take to take Mariupol. Resolute Ukrainian resistance has severely tested Russian forces and is drawing back personnel and weaponry, slowing the Russian offensive elsewhere."
Where is the West?
Where does this leave Ukraine? In his interview for CNN, President Zelensky stressed that the Russian army is systematically destroying the civilian population of captured cities, which he says amounts to genocide. He also said that in the face of the Russian actions, other countries are morally obliged to back Ukraine with more military support.
"The only belief there is belief in ourselves, in our people, belief in our Armed Forces, and the belief that countries are going to support us not just with their words but with their actions," Zelensky said.
There is no reason to think that a man like Putin can accept defeat.
But it was his statement that there may be no room for any peace treaty after Mariupol that is the most crucial point at this stage.
The lack of military aid, the inaction of military alliances, and the futility of agreements cost Ukraine tens of thousands of lives. Lives that cannot be recovered with investments from Europe or reparations from Russia. These are our Ukraine's irrevocable losses that become a non-negotiable, post-mortem .
NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Joan laid out the coming days and weeks in military terms: "We are entering the second phase, more complicated, different in nature from the first phase, on a much wider area, both in the east, in the Donbas, and in the south, toward Crimea and Mariupol. So, according to our estimates, we are entering the second, more difficult phase of this war, which seems to be dragging on."
There is no reason to think that a man like Putin can accept defeat. He will press Ukraine by all means, and right now that's playing out in Mariupol and the rest of Donbas. The city is nearly dead, the fate of the rest of the region may depend on how and when the death of Mariupol will arrive.
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