Mariupol fell to Russia. Here’s what it means for Ukraine: NPR

A Russian serviceman patrols the destroyed part of the Ilyich steelworks in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Wednesday.

Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images


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A Russian serviceman patrols the destroyed part of the Ilyich steelworks in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Wednesday.

Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

The Ukrainian city of Mariupol is now in Russian hands, after more than two months of fierce fighting and constant Russian shelling that destroyed swathes of the city and killed thousands of civilians, according to local officials.

Ukraine officially announced the end of its combat mission in Mariupol on Monday evening. Evacuations of Ukrainian soldiers from the steel plant in Azovstal, Ukraine’s last military stronghold, began earlier in the day.

The Russian Defense Ministry said nearly 1,000 troops have surrendered since then, including dozens of wounded soldiers being treated at a hospital in the Donetsk region of Ukraine controlled by Russian and separatist forces.

It is not known how many Ukrainian soldiers remain in Mariupol. “The evacuation mission is continuing, it is supervised by our military and our intelligence services. The most influential international mediators are involved,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday.

Ukrainian officials said this week they expected the evacuated soldiers to eventually be exchanged for prisoners of war. But some Russian politicians have protested the idea, calling Mariupol’s defenders “Nazi criminals”.

The struggle for Mariupol had been a source of morale for Ukrainians as a “David and Goliath story”, said Rita Konaev, a Russian military specialist at Georgetown University.

For months, Ukrainians celebrated the small number of soldiers who managed to keep the city from falling to the Russians, despite near-constant shelling and the advantage of Russian firepower.

“The main goal was to hold back the enemy, and they did that for as long as possible. Thank you to our heroes, our defenders, for holding Mariupol fort for so long,” Mariupol mayor said , Vadym Boichenko, speaking on Ukrainian Television on Monday.

Why was Russia so focused on taking Mariupol?

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. Most of the current fighting is taking place in the Donbass region.

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 faced Russian aggression since 2014.

“Mariupol is right between them. So taking Mariupol is part of the campaign in the south and southeast to connect the Russian-controlled areas, basically,” Konaev, who spoke to NPR in March, said.

By controlling Mariupol, Russia has solidified its land bridge to Crimea and now controls the entire northern shore of the Sea of ​​Azov.

The central district of Mariupol on Wednesday, two days after Ukraine announced it had ended its combat mission in the city.

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The central district of Mariupol on Wednesday, two days after Ukraine announced it had ended its combat mission in the city.

Andrei Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images

What could it mean for Ukraine that Mariupol is in Russian hands?

In the short term, Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol had been isolated from the rest of the Ukrainian armed forces for months. It was estimated that only a few thousand people remained in the city when they were pushed back into Azovstal.

The country is pursuing the return of these soldiers through prisoner exchanges. “I want to emphasize that Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes,” Zelenskyy said earlier this week.

In the long term, Mariupol was an important economic center for Ukraine due to its status as a port city. In peacetime, it is an important export site for Ukrainian steel and grain.

That status has already been changed by the war, Liam Collins, a retired U.S. Army special forces colonel who trained Ukrainian forces, told NPR in March. With Mariupol under siege, it is currently unable to produce for the war effort, he said.

The major impact would come if a negotiated settlement separates part of Ukraine, Collins said: “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 holds Mariupol for a long time, preventing Ukraine’s 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.

What was the fighting like there and how did it focus on a steel mill?

Mariupol has been at the center of the Russian army’s concerns since the start of its invasion. Russian forces reached Mariupol just days after the invasion began on February 24, and they surrounded the city in early March.

During weeks of intense street fighting and relentless shelling, Russia pushed Ukrainian forces further and further back until they were pinned inside the Azovstal factory with their backs to the coast, with nowhere to retreat.

On April 21, Russian military officials declared victory in Mariupol after capturing the rest of the city.

The humanitarian situation inside the city, described to NPR by people who fled from March to May, was deplorable. Residents leaving Mariupol consistently described a lack of access to food, water, heating or communications. Many sheltered in basements for weeks as shells and airstrikes fell constantly around them.

Some of the war’s most shocking moments occurred in Mariupol, including the destruction of a maternity hospital and an attack on the city’s drama theatre, where more than 1,000 civilians had taken refuge.

As the fighting reached the steelworks, hundreds of civilians took shelter in the plant’s network of bunkers and underground tunnels that date back to the Soviet era. Many were evacuated earlier this month in convoys led by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations.

“The last days we were there, I became convinced that the steel mill was going to collapse on top of us. How could it withstand this kind of bombardment?” said Alex Dybko, an English teacher who took refuge in the factory for weeks with his wife and son before being evacuated to Zaporizhzhia this month.

A Russian military vehicle painted with the letter Z drives past destroyed homes in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Wednesday.

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A Russian military vehicle painted with the letter Z drives past destroyed homes in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Wednesday.

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What’s next for Mariupol?

Local officials say more than 20,000 civilians have died in the city. The damage to the city is enormous. Ukrainian officials say there are around 100,000 civilians left in Mariupol, which was home to around 430,000 before the war.

This week, Russia organized the first press tours for foreign journalists to visit the city. He has been widely dangerous to the media since the start of the war.

US officials have said they believe Russia may consider annexing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine this month. Mariupol is part of Donetsk Oblast.

“We think the Kremlin might try to hold sham referendums to try to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy. It’s straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook,” said Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador. to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters earlier this month.

The United States and its allies recently said they would never recognize Ukraine’s redrawn borders.

As for the larger war, Collins says Russia cannot win simply by conquering a certain amount of territory. “There are no winners in this. This is war. Both nations are going to lose regardless of the outcome. It’s just a matter of which loses more,” he said .

Additional reporting by Joanna Kakissis and Hanna Palamarenko of NPR in Zaporizhzhia.

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