News that the city of Mariupol, a major port in southeastern Ukraine, is about to fall has been in the news frequently in recent days. Russia has claimed victory several times and Ukraine has claimed that the city has not fallen into the hands of its adversaries. But how long will this impasse last?
Russian troops control virtually the entire city, except for the Azovstal steel factory, an 11 square kilometer industrial complex located near the city’s port area.
The site was transformed into the main base for Ukrainian forces, as it was built to resist bombing and has a network of underground tunnels that total about 24 kilometers. Moving through them undetected, some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters have withstood repeated Russian onslaughts. It is also in this tunnel complex that around 2,000 civilians would be housed – who would be relatives of the fighters.
Mariupol is a military target of great strategic importance for two reasons: its conquest would guarantee Russia a land corridor linking its territory to Crimea (annexed by Moscow in 2014) and it would deprive Ukraine of an important port – through which a large part of the production was transported. of grain and steel in the country.
In practice, Russia has already achieved these goals. This is because it controls the main highways and railways that pass through the city connecting the region with Crimea. The port had already had its activities suspended since the beginning of the war, on 24 February. An estimated 140 foreign ships and their crews are currently stranded in Ukrainian ports because Russia has placed a naval blockade on the country in the Black Sea – which is also riddled with naval mines.
There is no way for Azovstal’s defenders to break the Russian encirclement. They also have little chance of exchanging their uniforms for civilian clothes and escaping among the civilian population. So far, the speech of Ukrainians is to fight to the end.
Moscow has already offered opportunities for Ukrainian fighters to surrender at least three times. All of them have been refused so far. Kiev wanted the establishment of a humanitarian corridor so that its fighters could escape without being arrested, but Moscow did not agree.
The reader may be wondering: why don’t the combatants surrender at once and wait for the next prisoner exchanges (which have been recurring)?
This has not happened so far because Ukraine wants to keep as many Russian troops as possible for as long as possible engaged in the Battle of Mariupol. While in the region, these troops cannot be deployed to reinforce Russian ranks further north, in the Battle of Donbass, according to Ukrainian Major General Andrii Kozhemiakin, commander of Kiev’s Mriya battalion, told this columnist.
Ukraine wants to buy as much time as possible for its troops in Donbass to receive more weapons that are being sent by the United States and its European allies.
Why doesn’t Russia make a final attack on Azovstal?
On Wednesday (20), Russian troops bombed and launched successive attacks against the industrial complex – but failed to take it. Bombardments are ineffective in this specific area. It is believed that the complex could withstand even a nuclear attack. Therefore, combat has to be man-to-man – which greatly increases the number of casualties on both sides.
Russian President Vladimir Putin then ordered Russian troops to cordon off the complex to prevent supplies from entering and fighters escaping. However, it is not known how much water and supplies the Ukrainians have, nor the number of wounded in their ranks.
At the same time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had stated that it would not be possible to return to negotiations with Russia if the Mariupol fighters are massacred. By offering successive surrender deals, Putin also appears not to want to be blamed for the eventual failure of the peace talks.
That’s the military and diplomatic scenario, but what about civilians in this account?
I was on Friday (22) at the refugee reception center in the city of Zaporizhzhnya, 200 kilometers from Azovstal, and I met very few residents of the city of Mariupol.
This is because Russia has often not authorized the establishment of humanitarian corridors into the city. The last time this happened was on Thursday (21), but only 60 people managed to escape in a few buses provided by the Ukrainian authorities.
The corridors are necessary because the battlefront in southeastern Ukraine is not consolidated. Bombings and clashes between the Russian and Ukrainian armies have been reported near Zaporizhzhnya – in cities such as Huliaipilske, Kamyanske, Novodanylivka, Orikhiv, Pavlivka, Vremivka, Temyrivka, Preobrazhenka, Charivne, Uspenivka, Mala Tokmachka, Malynivka, Poltavka and Novoandriivka.
That is, it is very dangerous for citizens to take their vehicles and drive to the Ukrainian side, as they can be hit in the crossfire. But some people are doing it. They tie flags and white cloths to their vehicles and risk going through areas where it is not known whether there are troops or not.
The family of 14-year-old Alex Besmrtni tried their luck and arrived unharmed. “We crashed at a checkpoint, but there were no Russians there, but troops from Dagestan (who fight alongside the Russians). We spent eight hours waiting until they let us through. But before we went, they said, ‘It’s no use for you to go to Zaporizhzhnya, because there will be the second Mariupol,’” he said.
The young man was the only member of the family able to speak a few words of English. To understand a part of his interview, I tried to use an online Ukrainian translator on my cell phone, but I was surprised by his reaction: “Put an English translation into Russian because I don’t speak Ukrainian very well”.
I had noticed that throughout Ukraine it is normal to hear people mixing Russian words into the Ukrainian language, but before coming to Zaporizhzhnya I had not met Ukrainians who do not know the official language of the country. And as he is a teenager, the fact cannot be attributed to the period of Soviet domination.
According to the only census carried out in Ukraine in the post-Soviet period, in the early 2000s, about 85% of citizens speak Ukrainian and just under 15% speak Russian. Russian speakers are located right in the southeast of the country and in the Donbass region.
On Friday, Zelensky released yet another of his videos, and this time he appealed to residents of Zaporizhzhnya and Kherson: not to provide any information to Russian officials who claim to be conducting a census in the region. A large part of the Zaporizhzhnya oblast (state) is already controlled by the Russians. Kherson was the first Ukrainian city to be conquered.
“It’s not just to take a census (…). It is not to give humanitarian aid of any kind. It is to falsify an alleged referendum in their land,” Zelensky said.
Russia says the invasion of eastern and southern Ukraine is aimed at freeing ethnic Russians who are said to be disaffected and suffering alleged human rights abuses by the Zelensky government. The Ukrainian president says he fears Putin will hold a fake referendum to further support this argument.
The issue is extremely complex and it does not seem possible to completely rule out either Putin’s or Zelensky’s views. But I have spoken with many Ukrainians in the region and most say they are not concerned with politics, but with saving their families and having a dignified life after the conflict.
On the one hand, there are still hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in territory recently occupied by Russia – 100,000 in Mariupol alone. But many have already left the region – more than 300,000 refugees were from Mariupol.
Despite speaking more Russian than Ukrainian, most of these refugees sought shelter in unoccupied Ukrainian territory, not Russia. This may give you a clue as to what is going on.
#long #Ukraine #fight #Mariupol