A brutal Russian siege has left the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in ruins. Beaten from land, air and sea, thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed, while those who cannot escape lack water, food, electricity and communication with the outside world.
Since Friday, heavy fighting has continued in the strategically vital city, which is surrounded by Russian forces.
“They throw everything on it,” 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 use naval forces, they use their air force, they 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 with Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies, and Frank Sysyn, professor of history at the University of Ottawa. Alberta and the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies. They say Russia is seeking strategic and propaganda victories with its increasingly vicious assault on the industrial port city.
CREATION OF A LAND BRIDGE
Capturing Mariupol would give the Russian military a direct link between the annexed Crimean peninsula and the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has been waging 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 this land bridge back from being completed.”
Mariupol was even briefly captured in 2014, although Ukraine was able to drive off the invaders.
“Some argue that Putin’s failures in 2014 made him particularly vengeful against Mariupol,” said Sysyn of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. “I think the relative prosperity of Mariupol compared to the economic ruin of much of the separatist-controlled Donetsk Oblast has also been the subject of revenge.”
With a pre-war population of over 400,000, Mariupol is the second largest city in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast and is part of the territory that Russia claims is part of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
“The jewel is Mariupol, the only major city in Donbass that remained under Ukrainian control in 2014,” Arel said from Ottawa. “This is why, first and foremost, Mariupol is considered so important.”
Mariupol is home to the Azov Battalion, which has been accused of being a right-wing nationalist group. Originally 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 fought Russian-backed factions in eastern Ukraine in the part of the country’s National Guard.
The capture of Mariupol could fuel domestic Russian propaganda that its “special military operation” is for the “denazification” of Ukraine. Braun imagines that the Azov fighters could even be subjected to show trials.
“They can use captured members of the Azov Brigade as an A piece of Nazism,” he said. “That would not help persuade the world, but persuade the 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. It’s ridiculous, of course,” Arel said. “Russia Now Justifies Destruction of Mariupol City and Civil Buildings to ‘Cleanse the City of Nationalists'”.
Both Arel and Braun acknowledge that there are far-right elements in the Ukrainian military, just like there are in most other countries.
“It would be like saying on this basis that the Canadian army is a neo-Nazi army,” Braun said. “It’s as absurd as that.”
As well as reclaiming a former part of the Soviet Union, it has been argued that Putin was trying to rekindle Russia’s imperial glory, when Mariupol was part of an 18th-century Black Sea region known as ” Novorossiya”, or New Russia. This term has been used in past Kremlin propaganda to refer to areas with large Russian-speaking populations in southeastern Ukraine.
“Putin strongly 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 is a kind of mythology that Putin pushes, that Ukraine is an artificial construction of the state, Ukrainian nationality is a myth created by the West, and therefore, if you speak Russian, you are Russian” , Braun said. “Which is not entirely accurate, because we can see that in so many places in Ukraine now, where the majority of people can speak Russian, they don’t consider themselves Russian.”
Instead of greeting Russian soldiers with open arms, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians resisted and protested the unprovoked invasion. Sysn says this could push Putin to step up attacks on civilians.
“Putin had clearly not studied Irish history, and through which he could have discovered that not all English speakers are pro-English,” Sysyn said. “Now he has alienated the Russian speakers of Ukraine and I fear he has decided to decimate the Ukrainian population, in part by driving out so many refugees, and to devastate the Ukrainian economy.”
AN ECONOMIC BLOW
The port of Mariupol is the largest in the Sea of Azov and the city is home to an economically important steel industry. Maritime traffic to and from Mariupol had already been curtailed by restrictions imposed when Russia built a bridge between its mainland and annexed Crimea, which limited access between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, and the world beyond. If Russia captured Mariupol, the entire Sea of Azov 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 punished and Russia doesn’t need its steel,” Arel said. “The city is destroyed anyway.”
MORALE AND MARIUPOL
If Ukraine were to hold Mariupol after such a heavy 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 biggest cities to fall in the now month-long war.
“From a Ukrainian point of view, they can think of it in terms of their own type of Stalingrad, where they resist, where they overthrow it, where they don’t let it down and where it becomes a sort of heroic city,” said he declared. . “If they manage to survive through thick and thin, that’s when they might see this as some kind of turning point.”
With files from The Associated Press
Get in touch
Do you have Ukrainian and Russian family members? How are you handling the crisis? E-mail [email protected]
Please include your name, location and contact information if you would like to speak to a CTV News reporter.
Your comments may be used in a CTVNews.ca story.