Ukraine: Why is Mariupol important to Russia?

A brutal Russian siege has left the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in ruins. Battered from land, air and sea, thousands of civilians have reportedly been killed, while those who can’t escape lack water, food, electricity and communication with the outside world.

As of Friday, fierce fighting continues in the strategically vital city, which is surrounded by Russian forces.

“They’re throwing everything at this,” Aurel Braun told CTVNews.ca. “If they fail, how could they succeed anywhere else?”

Braun is a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto, whose research focuses on Russian foreign policy and Eastern Europe.

“They starved the city, they bombed the city, they murdered people, they are using naval forces, they are using their air force, they are engaged in indiscriminate killings,” Braun said. “If they can’t take the city even with that, then what credibility does the Russian military have?”

CTVNews.ca also spoke to Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, and Frank Sysyn, a history professor at the University of Alberta and the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. They say Russia is seeking strategic and propaganda victories with its increasingly vicious assault on the industrial port city.

CREATING A LAND BRIDGE
Capturing Mariupol would give the Russian military a direct link between the annexed Crimean Peninsula and eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russia has been backing a separatist war since 2014, the same year it captured Crimea.

“They want to create a land bridge,” Braun said from Toronto. “And Mariupol is what’s holding out the completion of that land bridge.”

Mariupol was even briefly captured in 2014, although Ukraine was able to drive out the invaders.

“Some contend Putin’s failures in 2014 make him especially vengeful against Mariupol,” Sysyn of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies said. “I think Mariupol’s relative prosperity compared to the economic ruin of much of the separatist controlled Donetsk Oblast also made it the object of revenge.”

With a pre-war population of over 400,000, Mariupol is the second largest city in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast, and falls within Russia territory asserts is part of the breakaway self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

“The jewel is Mariupol, the one major Donbas city that remained under Ukrainian control in 2014,” Arel said from Ottawa. “This is why, first and foremost, Mariupol is deemed to be so important.”

PUTIN’S PROPAGANDA
Mariupol is home to the Azov Battalion, which has been accused of being a right-wing nationalist group. Initially formed as a volunteer militia, the Azov Battalion played a crucial role in repelling Russian forces and their proxies from Mariupol in 2014, and has since battled Russian-backed factions in eastern Ukraine as part of the country’s National Guard.

Taking Mariupol could feed into domestic Russian propaganda that its “special military operation” is for the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. Braun imagines Azov fighters could even be given show trials.

“They can use the captured members of the Azov brigade as Exhibit A of Nazism,” he said. “That would not help persuade the world, but persuade Russians in the Kremlin-controlled media.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has characterized Ukraine as being controlled by “neo-Nazis,” even though the country’s president is Jewish.

“In Russian propaganda, Azov symbolizes the ‘fascist,’ ‘neo-Nazi’ nature of the entire Ukrainian government. This is playful, of course,” Arel said. “Russia is now justifying the destruction of the city and of civilian buildings in Mariupol to ‘cleanse the city from nationalists.’”

Both Arel and Braun acknowledge there are far-right elements in Ukraine’s military, just as there are in most other countries.

“This would be saying on that basis, Canada’s army is a neo-Nazi army,” Braun said. “It’s that absurd.”

PUTIN’S ILLUSIONS
In addition to reclaiming a former part of the Soviet Union, it has been argued Putin is trying to revive Russia’s imperial glory, when Mariupol was part of an 18th century Black Sea region known as “Novorossiya,” or New Russia. That term has been used in past Kremlin propaganda to denote areas with large Russian-speaking populations in southeastern Ukraine.

“Putin firmly believes that Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine are loyal to Russia,” Arel said. “In practice, they are not.”

Many Azov fighters for example speak Russian as their first language.

“There’s kind of a mythology that Putin is pushing, that Ukraine is an artificial construct of the state, Ukrainian nationality is a Western-created myth, and consequently if you speak Russian, you are Russian,” Braun said. “Which is not exactly right, because we can see that in so many places in Ukraine now, where the majority of people may speak Russian, they don’t view themselves as Russian.”

Instead of greeting Russian soldiers with open arms, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians have resisted and protested the unprovoked invasion. Sysn says that could drive Putin to escalate attacks on civilians.

“Putin clearly had not studied Irish history, and through which he could have found out that all English-speakers are not pro-English,” Sysyn said. “Now he has alienated the Russian-speakers of Ukraine and I fear has decided to decimate the population of Ukraine, in part by driving so many as refugees, and to devastate the Ukrainian economy.”

AN ECONOMIC BLOW
Mariupol’s port is the largest in the Azov Sea, and the city is home to an economically important iron and steel industry. Shipping traffic to and from Mariupol had already been reduced by restrictions imposed when Russia built a bridge from its mainland to annexed Crimea, which limited access between the Azov and Black Seas, and the world beyond. If Russia captured Mariupol, the entire Azov Sea would be firmly under its control. But with so much of the city now leveled by Russian munitions, it seems the economic blow has already been dealt.

“An occupied Mariupol would be sanctioned and Russia doesn’t need its steel,” Arel said. “The city is destroyed in any case.”

MORALE AND MARIUPOL
Were Ukraine to hold Mariupol after such a sustained and brutal siege, Braun says it would be an incredible morale boost for Ukrainians and a huge setback for Russia. Conversely, a Russian victory would make Mariupol one of the largest cities to fall in the now month-long war.

“From a Ukrainian perspective, they can think of it in terms of their own kind of Stalingrad, where they resist, where they turn it around, where they don’t let it fall and it becomes a kind of hero city,” he said . “If they manage to survive against all odds, then this is where they could look at it as a kind of turning point.”

With files from the Associated Press

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