Mariupol: Four reasons the city matters so much to Russia
Mariupol has become the most heavily
bombed and damaged city in Ukraine's war with Russia - having suffered the
brunt of sustained Russian attacks. It is key to Moscow's military campaign in
Ukraine. But why?
There are four main reasons why
taking the port city would be such a strategic win for Russia - and a major
blow for Ukraine.
Securing a land corridor between Crimea and Donbas
Geographically, the city of Mariupol
occupies only a tiny area on the map but it now stands obstinately in the way
of Russian forces who have burst out of the Crimean peninsula.
They are pushing north-east to try
to link up with their comrades and Ukrainian-separatist allies in the Donbas
region of eastern Ukraine.
General Sir Richard Barrons - former
commander of UK Joint Forces Command - says capturing Mariupol is vital to
Russia's war effort.
"When the Russians feel they
have successfully concluded that battle, they will have completed a land bridge
from Russia to Crimea and they will see this as a major strategic
If Mariupol was seized, Russia would
also end up with full control of more than 80% of Ukraine's Black Sea coastline
- cutting-off its maritime trade and further isolating it from the world.
By holding out against advancing
forces for the past three weeks, the defending Ukrainians have managed to
preoccupy a large number of Russian troops. But that failure by Russia to
secure a rapid capture of the city, has prompted Russian commanders to resort
to a 21st Century version of mediaeval siege tactics.
They have pummelled Mariupol with
artillery, rockets and missiles - damaging or destroying over 90% of the city.
They have also cut off access to electricity, heating, fresh water, food and
medical supplies - creating a man-made humanitarian catastrophe which Moscow
now blames on Ukraine for refusing to surrender by an 05:00 deadline on Monday.
A Ukrainian MP has accused Russia of "trying to starve Mariupol into
Ukraine has vowed to defend the city
down to the last soldier. It may well come to that. Russian troops are slowly
pushing into the centre and, in the absence of any kind of workable peace deal,
Russia is now likely to intensify its bombardment - drawing little if any
distinction between its armed defenders and the beleaguered civilian population
which still numbers over 200,000.
If, and when, Russia takes full
control of Mariupol this will free up close to 6,000 of its troops - organised
into 1,000-strong battalion tactical groups - to then go and reinforce other
Russian fronts around Ukraine.
There are a number of possibilities
as to where they could be redeployed:
to the north-east to join the battle to encircle and
destroy Ukraine's regular armed forces fighting pro-Kremlin separatists in
the Donbas region
to the west to push towards Odesa, which would be
Ukraine's last remaining major outlet to the Black Sea
to the north-west towards the city of Dnipro
2. Strangling Ukraine's economy
·Mariupol has long-been a
strategically important port on the Sea of Azov, part of the Black Sea.
·With its deep berths, it is the
biggest port in the Azov Sea region and home to a major iron and steel works.
In normal times, Mariupol is a key export hub for Ukraine's steel, coal and
corn going to customers in the Middle East and beyond.
For eight years now, since Moscow's
illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the city has been sandwiched
uncomfortably between Russian forces on that peninsula and the pro-Kremlin
separatists in the breakaway self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Losing Mariupol would be a major
blow to what is left of Ukraine's economy.
Mariupol is home to a Ukrainian
militia unit called the Azov Brigade, named after the Sea of Azov which links
Mariupol to the rest of the Black Sea. The Azov Brigade contains far-right
extremists including neo-Nazis.
Although they form only the tiniest
fraction of Ukraine's fighting forces, this has been a useful propaganda tool
for Moscow, giving it a pretext for telling Russia's population that the young
men it has sent to fight in Ukraine are there to rid their neighbour of
If Russia manages to capture alive
significant numbers of Azov Brigade fighters it is likely they will be paraded
on Russian state-controlled media as part of the ongoing information war to
discredit Ukraine and its government.
Major morale boost
The capture of Mariupol by Russia,
if it happens, will be psychologically significant for both sides in this war.
A Russian victory in Mariupol would
enable the Kremlin to show its population - through state-controlled media -
that Russia was achieving its aims and making progress.
For President Putin, for whom this
war appears to be personal, there is a historical significance to all this. He
sees Ukraine's Black Sea coastline as belonging to something called Novorossiya
(New Russia) - Russian lands that date back to the 18th Century empire.
Putin wants to revive that concept,
"rescuing Russians from the tyranny of a pro-western government in
Kyiv" as he sees it. Mariupol currently stands in the way of him achieving
But to Ukrainians, the loss of
Mariupol would be a major blow - not just militarily and economically - but
also to the minds of the men and women fighting on the ground, defending their
country. Mariupol would be the first major city to fall to the Russians after
Kherson, a strategically much less important city that was barely defended.
There is another morale aspect here
and that is of deterrence.
Mariupol has put up fierce resistance - but
look at the cost. The city is decimated, it lies largely in ruins. It will go
down in history alongside Grozny and Aleppo, places that Russia eventually
bombed and shelled into submission, reducing them to rubble. The message to
other Ukrainian cities is stark - if you choose to resist like Mariupol did
then you can expect the same fate.
"The Russians couldn't walk into
Mariupol," says Gen Sir Richard Barrons, "they couldn't drive in with
their tanks, so they've pounded it to rubble. And that's what we should expect
to see anywhere else that really matters to them."