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The Ukrainian city of Mariupol is now in the hands of the Russians, after more than two months of bitter fighting and constant Russian bombing that destroyed large swathes of the city and killed thousands of civilians, according to local officials.
Ukraine officially announced the end of its combat mission in Mariupol late Monday. Evacuations of Ukrainian soldiers from the steel plant in Azovstal, Ukraine’s last military stronghold, began earlier that day.
The Russian Defense Ministry says nearly 1,000 soldiers have since surrendered, including dozens of wounded soldiers being treated at a hospital in the Donetsk region of Ukraine controlled by Russian and separatist forces.
It is unclear how many Ukrainian soldiers remained in Mariupol. “The evacuation mission is continuing, and it is being supervised by our army and intelligence. The most influential international mediators are participating,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday.
Ukrainian officials said this week that they expect the evacuees to eventually be exchanged in a prisoner-of-war exchange. But some Russian politicians protested this idea, calling the defenders of Mariupol “Nazi criminals.”
Rita Konayev, an expert on the Russian military at Georgetown University, said the fight for Mariupol was a source of morale for Ukrainians as “the story of David and Goliath.”
For several months, the Ukrainians celebrated the few soldiers who managed to prevent the city from falling into the hands of the Russians, despite the almost constant bombardment and the advantage of Russian firepower.
Mayor of Mariupol, Vadim Boychenko, said in an interview on Ukrainian TV Monday.
Why is Russia so focused on capturing Mariupol?
Mariupol lies between Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and a region of 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 Jeepin’s “independence” there before the massive invasion of Ukraine. These two areas – the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – which have faced Russian aggression since 2014.
“Mariupol is in between. So the capture of Mariupol is part of the campaign in the south and southeast to connect mainly Russian-controlled areas,” said Konayev, who spoke to NPR in March.
By taking control of Mariupol, Russia strengthened its land bridge to Crimea and now controls the entire northern shore of the Sea of Azov.
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What can it mean for Ukraine that Mariupol is in the hands of Russia?
In the short term, the Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol were isolated from the rest of the Ukrainian armed forces for several months. It is estimated that only a few thousand were left in the city by the time they were backed up to Azovstal.
The state seeks the return of these soldiers through an exchange of prisoners. “I want to stress that Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes,” Zelensky said earlier this week.
In the long run, Mariupol has been an important economic center of Ukraine due to its status as a port city. In peacetime, it is a major export location for Ukrainian steel and grain.
Liam Collins, a retired US Army Special Forces colonel who has trained Ukrainian forces, told NPR in March that this situation had already changed due to the war. With Mariupol under siege, he said, it is currently unable to produce the war effort.
Collins said the big impact would be if a negotiated settlement splits up part of Ukraine: “Ukraine won’t want to do that 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 from accessing the Sea of Azov, it will damage Ukraine’s finances and economic sustainability, hampering the country’s ability to sell and ship its products.
“It’s part of a broader effort to actually cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea, which is a really important part of the Ukrainian economy and trade,” Konayev said.
How was the fighting there and how was the focus on the steel mill?
Mariupol has been a focus The Russian army since the beginning of its invasion. Russian forces reached Mariupol a few days after the invasion began on February 24, and had encircled the city by early March.
During weeks of intense street fighting and constant bombing, Russia has pushed Ukrainian forces farther and even farther Installed inside the Azovstal factoryand their backs to the coast, with no other place 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 by people who fled from March to May, was dire. Residents who left Mariupol uniformly described a lack of food, water, heating, or communications. Many took refuge in basements for weeks on end as shells and air raids constantly fell around them.
When the fighting reached the steel mill, hundreds of civilians were sheltering in the factory’s network of Soviet-era underground bunkers and tunnels. Several were evacuated earlier this month In convoys led by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations.
“In the last few days we were there, I became convinced that the steel mill was going to collapse on us. How could it withstand that kind of bombardment?” said Alex Dibko, an English teacher who sheltered in the factory for weeks with his wife and son before evacuating to Zaporizhzhya this month.
Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images
What’s next for Mariupol?
Local officials say more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in the city. The damage to the city was severe. Ukrainian officials say about 100,000 civilians remain in Mariupol, which had about 430,000 residents before the war.
This week, Russia organized the first press tours of foreign journalists to visit the city. It has been largely unsafe for the media since the war began.
US officials have said they believe Russia may look to annex eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions this month. Mariupol is part of the Donetsk region.
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 will never recognize Ukraine’s redrawn borders.
For a larger war, Collins says, Russia cannot win simply by occupying a certain amount of territory. “There are no winners in this. It’s a war. Both countries are going to lose regardless of the outcome. It’s just a matter of where one loses more,” he said.
Additional reporting by NPR’s Joanna Kakisis and Hana Palamarenko in Zaporizhia.
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