Capture of the port city will give Russia a land route to connect Crimea with the separatist-held regions of Donbass. It will also boost the morale of Putin’s troops, who are facing unexpected resistance.

As the Russian attacks on Ukraine enter the second month, the eastern port city of Mariupol has emerged as the centrepiece in this theatre of heavy clashes—a besieged landscape reduced to rubble by continuous airstrikes over the past few weeks. 

Street fighting continues between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces and volunteers in Mariupol where thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped inside bombed buildings.

"There is nothing left there," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Italy's parliament about Mariupol in a video address.

Almost 80 percent of the city’s infrastructure has been reportedly destroyed and some of the damages are beyond repair.

Russian blockade and heavy bombardments have led to a dire humanitarian crisis in the city as people suffer from a lack of water, food, power and heat.

"The city is under continuous bombing, from 50 bombs to 100 bombs Russian aircraft drops each day... A lot of death, a lot of crying, a lot of awful war crimes," Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told CNN.

The number of deaths remains unaccounted.

But why is Mariupol the main target of Russia?

Geostrategic importance 

Despite being a tiny area on the map, Mariupol is located between the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, and the Donbass region where Russian-backed separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics lie in southeastern Ukraine.

"Taking control of the highway from Crimea to Mariupol... will reliably connect the peninsula with Donbas by a transport corridor," said Kirill Stepanov, a government adviser for Russia's Southern Federal District.

Turkish security expert Abdullah Agar told TRT World that Mariupol is vital for Russia during this time and for the future.

Agar said Crimea would be connected to Russia by a land route if Mariupol falls.

Being a coastal city on the Sea of Azov, “it is very important for Russia in terms of supply and logistic advantages feeding its army,” Agar said.

In 2014, Russian-backed separatists entered Mariupol but they were pushed back by Ukrainian troops after heavy fighting.

Then President Petro Poroshenko declared the port city as the temporary capital of Donbass, replacing Donetsk city where rebels are largely in control.

Agar said that Ukrainians are now engaged in a very effective urban warfare and the city has become the symbol of resistance against Russians. 

Economy and maritime

Mariupol is home to one of the largest ports of Ukraine and a metallurgical centre for iron and steelworks. Heavy machinery manufacturing and ship repairs are carried out in this industrial zone.

The headquarters of the country’s largest steel plant, Metinvest, is also located in Mariupol. The multi-national metallurgical group’s Azovstal plant was heavily damaged by Russian shelling.

Despite Russia's tight inspections in Kerch Strait since 2014, almost a fifth of Ukraine’s ferrous metals are exported by sea from Mariupol.

“Mariupol’s destruction is a strong blow to the economy of Ukraine,” Andrii Ianitskyi, the head of the Centre for Excellence in Economic Journalism at the Kiev School of Economics, told TRT World

If Mariupol falls, control of the Sea of Azov will completely change hands and Russia will be able to cut off Ukraine’s maritime trade.

According to British military intelligence, the fall of Mariupol will boost morale of Russian forces.

Symbolism and propaganda

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who as a young man served as a Soviet intelligence agent in then-Communist East Germany, said eight years ago that under tsarist rule, large parts of eastern Ukraine—including the cities of Mariupol, Odessa, Kharkiv, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk—were once part of Russia.

He described those areas using the historical term “Novorossiya” - which literally translates as “New Russia”. It has fallen out of common usage.

The city has been a base of the Azov Battalion. This neo-Nazi former paramilitary group is now a unit of the National Guard of Ukraine, which the Kremlin cites to justify its attacks as “de-Nazification”.

Ianitskyi said: “Russian propaganda has demonised the Azov Battalion to justify the brutality of Russian soldiers.”

But, “their real goal is first the fall of Ukraine, and then Europe. Mariupol for Russia is a small episode in a big geopolitical game” he added.

Asked if Russians will capture Mariupol, Ianitskyi said Ukrainians react to military failures only with even “greater exertion of forces”.

“I am sure that no one will lay down their hands if Mariupol is occupied,” Ianitskyi said. 

TRT World spoke to Professor Andrey Makarychev from the University of Tartu’s Regional Political Studies in Estonia, who underlined that Russia has already destroyed the entire city of Mariupol, and dropped a powerful bomb over the local theatre where 1,500 people were hiding, and killed hundreds of urban residents.

“For Ukraine Mariupol has become an analogue of Srebrenica, a symbol of animality of the aggressor, which will keep boosting the spirit of resistance all across Ukraine,” Makarychev said.

The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan  called the Russian operation a “failure”.

"Russia intended to accomplish three basic objectives in launching its unprovoked attacks against Ukraine — first, to subjugate Ukraine. Second, to enhance Russian power and prestige. And third, to divide and weaken the West," Sullivan said.

"Russia has thus far manifestly failed to accomplish all three objectives. In fact, it has thus far achieved the opposite," he add

Source: TRT World