Mariupol: Russia’s Next Target in Ukraine War?

A Strategic City Prepares Its Defense; But if Truce Fails, Its Fate Will be Uncertain

Amid the war between Russia and Ukraine, no city is watching the viability of the fragile cease-fire with more apprehension than Ukraine’s second-largest seaport, Mariupol. That is because the city, home to steel mills and, normally, a half-million residents, will likely become an immediate and intense battleground if the fighting resumes. Russian troops and their allied militias in southeastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province launched an offensive toward the city last week just before the truce was declared.

The Russian forces captured the coastal town of Novoazovsk, 28 miles east of Mariupol, in what military analysts say was a push to seize Ukraine’s entire Azov Sea coastline and thus give Russia a secure overland access route to Crimea, which it seized and annexed last spring.

In May, the separatist militias sponsored by Russia seized control of Mariupol, facing no resistance from the city’s police force or the administration of Mariupol’s entrenched mayor, Yuriy Khotlubey (in office since 1998). Ukraine wrested the city back in June, relying on the Azov Battalion, one of more than a dozen locally organized volunteer units of Ukraine’s National Guard, and on patrols by workers from the city’s steel mills mobilized by their billionaire owner, Rinat Akhmetov.

Mariupol’s New Nationalism

Recent events in Mariupol suggest that its public mood has shifted since its leaders quiescently accepted its brief seizure by the Russian-backed militias in May. Thousands of residents rallied in the city’s center August 28 against Russia’s aggression, and scores gathered the following day to dig defensive ditches at the city’s outskirts. Paramilitary fighters of the Azov, Donbas, Shakhtar and other battalions have been joined by regular army units to man checkpoints on roads and defend the city.

Thousands of residents have fled Mariupol on roads leading west, and a sense of foreboding hangs over the city, says Andriy Filonenko, a construction-company owner in Kyiv who left his business to command the 200-strong Shakhtar (“Miner”) Battalion. Filonenko is a native of Zaporizhia, another southern industrial city about 140 miles northwest of Mariupol.

Mariupol got a morale boost Monday (September 8) when President Petro Poroshenko visited to deliver a nationally broadcast address in which he vowed that Ukraine will defend the city. “People saw that Kyiv cares about the city and is not ready to surrender it,” Filonenko said in a telephone interview. “And that gives everyone hope.”

Politically Powerful Oligarchs

In a sign of the political importance of the heavy industries in the southeast, and the magnates who own them, Poroshenko gave his main speech at Mariupol’s Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, one of the main companies in the south owned by Akhmetov, who is Ukraine’s wealthiest man. Akhmetov’s hosting of Poroshenko, like his company’s deployment of its workers in May to help check the separatists, are a sign that he is cooperating with the government, at least for now, even as he has kept to a noncommital, middle path in the war between Kyiv and Moscow.

Mariupol’s industry, much of it owned by Akhmetov, is a key to the city’s strategic importance. The Azov and Ilyich steel factories, which Akhmetov owns, are the second- and third-largest in Ukraine. The city also hosts Azovmash, the country’s largest producer of mining, rail, and metallurgical equipment.

Mariupol is one of several cities in eastern Ukraine where the oligarchs of the region’s industries are reorganizing themselves politically following the fracturing of the region’s long-dominant Party of Regions. The party was dominated for years by former President Viktor Yanukovych, until he was forced out of office last winter by the anticorruption and pro-European demonstrations of Ukraine’s Maidan movement. Managers of companies such as Mariupol’s Ilyich and Azov steel factories have been named as the officers of a recently registered political group, the Industrial Party.

‘Elastic’ Local Politicians

The Mariupol city administration is “elastic” in its political loyalties, said Filonenko. “Today they are pro-Ukrainian, but tomorrow they can be pro-Russian.” And while Mariupol is the most pro-Ukrainian of the cities in Donetsk province, much of the population is “elastic,” too. “The majority here is for Ukraine, but some thirty percent are easily swayed and they will support the Donetsk People’s Republic or some such other muck.”

Filonenko says the combination of volunteer battalions and army artillery units can defend Mariupol if the war resumes. “We’ve got heavy weaponry here now, I know many of the commanders here and they are very committed and will fight until the end.”

And he believes that they may have to do so. After Poroshenko announced the pullback of large numbers of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory following the ceasefire, Filonenko said, “this information is worth nothing.”  He added: “The Russian border is right across from Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. The Russians can return the same way they left.”

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.

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Image: President Petro Poroshenko greets workers of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol on Sept. 8. He praised the role of the city's steelworkers in resisting Russian-backed separatist rebels this summer. (Ukraine presidential office/