Monday, Sep 26, 2022

Explained: Why Mariupol matters to Russia in Ukraine war

Mariupol has been a key fighting ground as Moscow looks to overturn its 2014 loss when the Russia-backed separatists failed to capture the city in the Donetsk oblast (region). A look at why Mariupol holds the key to the Russian offensive.

Mariupol, Mariupol attack, Mariupol key to Russia's offensive, Russia-Ukraine war, Express Explained, explained global, Indian ExpressA satellite image shows burning apartment buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 19, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters

The Russian offensive against Mariupol has turned the city into “ashes of a dead land”, the city council asserted on Tuesday, describing the increased bombarding and shelling ever since Ukraine rejected the Kremlin’s proposal to lay down their arms and surrender.

Mariupol has been a key fighting ground as Moscow looks to overturn its 2014 loss when the Russia-backed separatists had failed to capture the city in the Donetsk oblast (region). We explain why Mariupol holds the key to the Russian offensive.

Why is Mariupol significant to Moscow?

Geographically, Mariupol forms a land bridge between Crimea–which Russia annexed in 2014–and Dobass, the separatist-held regions of Ukraine. As of now, the Sea of Azov falls between the Donetsk-Luhansk region and Crimea.

Just a 100-km away from the separatist-held regions, the rebel forces had tried to capture the city in 2014. However, Ukrainian forces reclaimed the region. Then president Petro Poroshenko had declared Mariupol the regional capital of the oblast after Donetsk fell to rebel forces.

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In 2016, it also became a ‘city of solidarity’—as termed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—welcoming internally displaced people from the contested territories.

Maritime advantage, economic hit

Not just land, capturing Mariupol also gives Russia a maritime advantage. With the fall of Kherson, Russia has already expanded its control over the Black Sea coastline, most of which is dominated by Moscow after it seized Crimea.

Russian troops have also launched attacks on Mykolayiv and Odessa, cities along the Black Sea. However, Ukrainian troops have been able to resist its advances so far.


In the East, much of the coastline along the Sea of Azov is also under Russian territory, barring Mariupol, which is home to one of the largest ports of Ukraine. Melitopol and Berdyansk along Azov were taken over by Russian forces just days after the invasion began, The Guardian has reported.

If Mariupol falls, Russia will control the entire coastline along the Sea of Azov and much of the Black Sea, cutting off Ukraine’s maritime trade.

In 2014, it had lost a third of its Black Sea coastline, access to the Kerch Strait and five of its seaports.


After the annexation, the handling of cargo at Mariupol and Berdyansk fell almost 70 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively, The Financial Times has reported. This resulted in a loss of $400 million for the ports, which was made worse with the opening of the Kerch Strait bridge by Russia in 2018. The bridge can only provide way to smaller ships with a maximum height of 35-meters. And with increasing inspections by Russian authorities, Ukrainian ships are forced to wait nearly five hours to go through.

However, Mariupol continues to account for a fifth of Ukraine’s ferrous metal exports. Along with Berdyansk, it also makes up for 5 per cent of grain exports, according to Bloomberg. It is also home to two of the largest iron and steel plants in Europe — Azovstal and Ilyich. Azovstal has reportedly been damaged by Russian shelling.

Hence, Moscow’s control over Mariupol will be a significant hit to Ukraine’s maritime trade and metal production.


In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked ‘Novorossiya’ (New Russia) while talking to reporters. Novorossiya is a historical term for territories considered to be part of Russia under tsarist rule, which included large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, such as Odessa, Kharkiv, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk.


“The region’s history as part of Russia created an obligation on Moscow to protect its present-day inhabitant,” Putin was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Effectively, controlling Mariupol will put Putin closer to the imagined Novorossiya.

A much-needed victory


Lastly, with the battlefield across northern Ukraine “largely static”, according to the latest update by British military intelligence, a win in Mariupol will be a major morale booster for Russian forces.

On Wednesday, the UK Ministry of Defence said, “Russian forces are attempting to envelop Ukrainian forces in the east of the country as they advance from the direction of Kharkiv in the north and Mariupol in the south.”


This came just a day after US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called Russia’s invasion a ‘failure’. “Russia intended to accomplish three basic objectives in launching its unprovoked attack against Ukraine: first, to subjugate Ukraine; second, to enhance Russian power and prestige; and third, to divide and weaken the West. Russia has thus far manifestly failed to accomplish all three objectives. In fact, it has thus far achieved the opposite,” Sullivan said.

Moreover, Mariupol is also the headquarter of the Azov regiment, which in 2014 had warded off Russian troops. The Azov fighters, however, are known for harbouring neo-Nazi and far-right views. Incorporated into the National Guard in 2014, Azovs also have a political party—National Corps—and a paramilitary group, National Militia, that has been accused of extremist violence.

Putin called for the “military operation” in Ukraine on the pretext of fighting such neo-Nazi groups. A win over the regiment would arguably buttress his claim. However, the Azov fighters form just a small fraction of the Ukrainian defence.

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Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation estimates that as of 2019, the Azov regiment consisted of 1,500 members, and an additional 1,000 members in the National Militia.

First published on: 23-03-2022 at 10:25:04 pm
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