The city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine has been the target of Russian airstrikes in recent weeks. Among the buildings affected are a maternity ward, a theater and a school of the arts. At least 2,000 civilians died and some 80% of homes were destroyed, according to city officials. Some 7,000 people were evacuated by convoy from Mariupol on Tuesday.
The result is a harrowing humanitarian crisis, as Ukrainians shelter in basements and safe passage out of town for civilians is limited and sporadic.
Why is this city so important? There are several reasons — for the Russian army and for the Ukrainian people.
For Russia, Mariupol is a major port city in a key location
1. The city is in a strategic location militarily.
Mariupol is located between Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and the region in eastern Ukraine called Donbass, much of which was already controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the “independence” of two enclaves there before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. These are the two regions – the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – that have been attacked by Russia since 2014.
“Mariupol is right between them. So taking Mariupol is part of the campaign in the south and southeast to connect areas under Russian control, basically,” said Rita Konaev, a Russian military expert at the University. from Georgetown, to NPR.
By controlling Mariupol, Russia could potentially create a land bridge to Crimea and control the entire northern shore of the Sea of Azov.
Russia hopes to encircle Ukrainian forces in the east and southeast of the country, a senior US defense official said on a call with reporters on Tuesday. This could prevent Ukrainian troops there from helping in other parts of the country, including kyiv, the official said.
2. As a port city, Mariupol is economically important.
Mariupol has long been an important industrial port city. In peacetime, it is an important export site for Ukrainian steel and grain.
That status has already been altered by the war, says Liam Collins, a retired US Army special forces colonel who trained Ukrainian forces. With Mariupol under siege, it is currently unable to produce for the war effort, he told NPR.
The major impact would come if a negotiated settlement separates part of Ukraine, Collins says: “Ukraine won’t want to do this after 2014 and 2015. [when Russia essentially took part of Eastern Ukraine]but it’s always a possibility.”
If Russia does indeed cut off Mariupol in the long term, and with it access to the Sea of Azov, it will hurt Ukraine’s finances and economic sustainability, hampering the country’s ability to sell and ship its products.
“This is part of a larger effort to effectively cut Ukraine off from access to the sea, which is a very important part of Ukraine’s economy and trade,” Konaev said.
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3. Taking Mariupol would be a boon to Russian morale.
If Russia succeeds in controlling Mariupol, it would be a huge boost to Russian morale.
This is because, according to Konaev, the campaign in Ukraine “did not go as Russia had imagined and they encountered significant military challenges. And they haven’t had a real victory since they took Kherson, which is nearby, and even there it remains disputed.”
“So at this stage they believe it is indeed necessary to take Mariupol in order to maintain morale and continue the campaign,” Konaev said.
Collins says capturing Mariupol would be remarkable for Russia – it not only shows you’re successful, it shows you’re in control of a bigger city.
It is also possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin will take advantage of the capture of Mariupol with specific propaganda. The Azov Regiment, a unit of neo-Nazi origin integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard, is present in Mariupol. Because Putin has repeatedly and incorrectly framed his invasion of Ukraine as a denazification effort, winning Mariupol could provide new fodder for his false narrative.
4. If negotiations take place, new borders could be drawn.
At some point, there could be negotiations – perhaps to achieve a ceasefire – in which new demarcation lines would be drawn.
Areas held by Russian forces could determine where a theoretical new line could be drawn. And if Mariupol falls into Russian hands, new lines could mean it will end up being part of a Russian-controlled Donbass or as an independent republic, recognized by Russia.
But it’s not a war that Russia will win by conquering a certain amount of territory, Collins said. “There are no winners in this. This is war. Both nations are going to lose regardless of the outcome. It’s just a question of which loses more.”
For Ukraine, Mariupol has been a source of inspiration – and its loss could make the war effort more difficult.
1. The resistance of the Ukrainian army has been a fuel for the Ukrainian people.
The Russian bombs were terrifying and brutal for the people of Mariupol. And the courage shown by the townspeople has been an inspiration to other Ukrainians. “Right now, Mariupol is this legendary bastion of resistance,” Konaev says, “and I think that’s fueling resistance everywhere else.”
If the Ukrainian army manages to retain Mariupol, it could set the tone for the rest of the country.
“It would really amplify this David and Goliath story and might feel like a turning point,” she says. While that might not be the deciding factor in an extended campaign, she says it could be important in shaping the narrative around the war.
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2. The humanitarian catastrophe could worsen if Russia takes the city.
Losing Mariupol to Russia would likely add even more misery and devastation to the townspeople.
The city had already become home to many internally displaced Ukrainians who fled fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. “This secondary displacement is very difficult for people,” says Konaev.
More than 41,000 people have fled the city in recent days, according to Mariupol city officials. But humanitarian corridors remain tenuous and safe passage is far from certain.
3. It is unclear what Russia “owning” Mariupol would look like.
What would it be like for Russian troops to take – and control – Mariupol? It’s likely, Collins says, that the low-level fights would continue for a long time.
“Even if Russia gets to the point of supposedly ‘possessing her,'” Collins says, “she will most likely come under heavy attack from the various volunteers who are in the city.”
But Konaev doesn’t think Russia needs to physically occupy Mariupol and other cities to achieve its goals.
“I don’t think they intend to occupy these towns,” she said. “I think they intend to make some of them unlivable, so they can claim victory. And then use that as leverage to get what they want in the negotiations.”
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