‘An Absolute Effort to Strangle the People in the City’

FP’s Adam Tooze on the economics of Russia’s siege on Mariupol in Ukraine.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainians in Lviv demonstrate their support of the residents in Mariupol.
Ukrainians in Lviv demonstrate their support of the residents in Mariupol.
Ukrainians in the city Lviv demonstrate their support of the residents and defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 19. Alexey Furman/Getty Images

Putin’s War

The Russian military has been bombarding and besieging the Ukrainian city of Mariupol for weeks. Approximately 100,000 people remain there—about a quarter of the normal population—under truly horrific conditions. There’s little food, no running water, and no way out as the Russian military continues to destroy much of the city’s housing and infrastructure.

Is it still accurate to describe this sort of indiscriminate siege as urban warfare? What sort of economic logic might be guiding Russia’s strategy? And should we expect Mariupol to ever get rebuilt—or might it instead disappear entirely? These are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

The Russian military has been bombarding and besieging the Ukrainian city of Mariupol for weeks. Approximately 100,000 people remain there—about a quarter of the normal population—under truly horrific conditions. There’s little food, no running water, and no way out as the Russian military continues to destroy much of the city’s housing and infrastructure.

Is it still accurate to describe this sort of indiscriminate siege as urban warfare? What sort of economic logic might be guiding Russia’s strategy? And should we expect Mariupol to ever get rebuilt—or might it instead disappear entirely? These are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

Cameron Abadi: Let’s start by offering a portrait of this city as it once was. What kind of city should we be imagining? And what kind of economic role, say, has Mariupol played in modern Ukraine—and even further back in its history?

Adam Tooze: Its a city that’s really defined by its location on the Black Sea, more particularly on the Sea of Azov. A port is established in what is now Mariupol in 1778. It acquires its modern name in 1779 in honor of a tsarina. Through [1779] to the middle of the 19th century, its a Greek-Russian town speaking a particular type of Greek, a tiny place, maybe 5,000 inhabitants.

But then it gets connected to the railway system, and it becomes a major port for coal from the Donetsk region and for grain. Russians, Jews, and what will become modern Ukrainians start moving there and mixing with the Greek population only really in the second half of the 19th century. In terms of analogies, its kind of like a St. Louis or Pittsburgh on the sea. It isnt a grand port city like Baltimore with all of the wealth that came from cotton and slavery and so on. Its a more hardscrabble place than that.

Like most of the rest of Ukraine, of course, it was caught up in the horror of the Nazi occupation. After the war, its renamed after Andrei Zhdanov, the ultimate bootlicking ideological accompaniment to late Stalinism, and it retains that name until 1989. And by that point, its sort of an environmental disaster zone. Its one of the most polluted cities in the Soviet Union, which is saying something.

And then its caught up in the struggles of the [Euromaidan] revolution and the separatist movements. This has been a city which has essentially been on the front line since 2014. It is, and this has to be said, the site of the notorious right-wing Azov Battalion. By all accounts, they are a small fraction of the forces that are now defending Mariupol, but they provide Moscow with the legitimation for this claim that Ukraine is dominated by Nazis. That has its tiny shred of truth in the location of the Azov Battalion around Mariupol.

CA: Big cities like this are obviously economic engines at times of peace. But if one found oneself in a major land war of this kind, would you be better off in a city or in the countryside somewhere?

AT: Its a question with really horrifying implications. On the one hand, cities are places waiting to be turned into fortresses. You can establish roadblocks. You can fight in the ruins. They offer tall vantage points for snipers. For modern armies, theyre basically death traps: Many tanks cant elevate their guns or depress them far enough to be able to shoot at buildings at close quarters. So they become very vulnerable to anti-tank weapons, even light anti-tank weapons, fired at them from above. Ruins become ramparts.

But theyre also intensely vulnerable because cities dont fundamentally grow their own food. All the way back to the Neolithic [period], that is the definition of a city. So once you cut them off, they starve. And they also become deeply unsanitary because theyre so densely populated. So, you cannot, over a long period of time, survive there without the spread of infectious disease. But as head-on battles between equally matched armies of nations have become less and less common—and more and more warfare is asymmetric—if you are on the weaker side, it does make sense to retreat to a city simply because of the advantages that it offers the defender. And so weve seen more and more of that kind of warfare.

If you think about Fallujah or Mosul in Iraq or Grozny in Chechnya in the 1990s—which Russia twice besieged—what you see is precisely this weird kind of warfare where its not obvious whether the aggressors are attacking directly or simply trying to bury the defenders in the rubble of the city that theyre insisting on defending. And then the term that is used is this neologism, its called “urbicide.” Its an attack on the city as such. You just literally flatten block after block. And this traces its origins back to the Warsaw Uprising and the Warsaw Ghetto fight, where the German army was literally making an effort to crush the defenders under the collapsing city rather than wage a military fight.

CA: I imagine that the normal economy just entirely stops in a city during a siege like this. But is that to say that economic activity as a whole stops? What are the economics of survival during this kind of siege warfare?

AT: Yeah, the economy of places like this comes to center, as one would expect, around the absolute basics—around food, around water, around fuel. And it really becomes an absolutely desperate struggle on the inside to preserve order and to avoid a descent into a kind of Hobbesian dog-eat-dog system. Right now, in Mariupol, there is apparently a black market—not for meat because thats all gone but for what remains of vegetables, which were salvaged from one of the wholesale markets that the Russians flattened. There are people scavenging for fuel from abandoned vehicles, draining drinking water from radiators to keep themselves going. If this lasts longer, it will become more and more complicated and more and more exploitative.

And we have, in fact, many examples for this from Syria over the last decade. Incredibly elaborate siege economies developed because sieges were one of the key ways in which that war was fought, with Russian participation, of course. And you see the whole gamut of activities unfolding with middlemen in between: food supply, fuel supply, prostitution, education—beauty parlors, even. People have to have their hair cut still, if this goes on for months on end, just to keep their spirits alive.

And you see extraordinary business networks building up, in which the besieging forces basically collaborate with black-market traders to supply the city—but at increasingly excessive prices. So essentially, the siege becomes not just an absolute effort to strangle the people in the city but really a kind of economic race to strip them of all their wealth. Again, we see this in the Warsaw Ghetto, with the Jewish population there in 1941 and 1942. And we actually can watch it on film that was made by the Germans as this was going on. Its an absolutely devastating process, and [nongovernmental organizations], which are desperately trying to bring supplies in, find themselves caught up in hideously invidious choices, where the only way to get resources into the city is effectively to collaborate with these black marketeers.

In Syria, the ultimate solution for this in many cities was for the city to dig its way out. The cities would dig tunnels to enable them to short-circuit this black-market economy. And you can measure the effect in falling prices. At the peak of the sieges, the prices inside the siege were up to 60 times higher than in Damascus. And then, as the tunnels opened up, the prices would collapse back towards something more like a normal level.

CA: Is there an economic logic at all to Russias bombardment of Mariupol? Or is this really just destruction for destruction’s sake?

AT: If theres an economic logic, I think its on the Russian side. First, I think theyve run out of smart munitions, and theyre using the dumb bombs and the dumb artillery that they have plenty of. And that is a cheaper form of warfare.

I dont think that theyre targeting the city for geoeconomic purposes. The aim of the game is not to harm Ukraine by cutting the city off. What they are after—and this is why this goes much further than just simply destruction for destruction’s sake—is a land bridge. They want to be able to connect the Donetsk region, which they control, to Crimea, and then the foothold that theyve established along the Black Sea coastline of Ukraine in the south. This is the underreported success story of the Russian invasion so far. Some people believe that if they can take Mariupol, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin may even be able to declare victory. So this is a cheap, relatively riskless way of achieving what is, from a strategic point of view, rather an important target. It isnt, I don’t think, a deliberate economic strategy. But its not by accident that these cities are where they are, right? Sieges happen in economically significant places because cities are economically significant places.

CA: What does history tell us about the process of reconstruction after urban destruction like this? Do cities of this size necessarily get rebuilt? Or are there examples of cities that just then disappear as a result of war?

AT: If you try to think of cities that have been erased from history by invasion, I think the lesson of war is that in densely settled European areas where the project is not ultimately genocidal, cities do come back, and they come back because they are there for very powerful reasons in the first place. There are absolutely massive economies of location and of network interconnection. That’s why cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki [in Japan] came back very dramatically within years of the end of World War II. Or Hamburg, [Germany]. Even Berlin. Although the fact that West Berlin was cut off from its hinterland meant that bomb damage there was still visible all the way through to the 2000s.

And thats a sign, I think, of the factor which determines reconstruction. If the economic connections grow back, then the damage is quite rapidly reabsorbed. If they dont—as in the case of West Berlin—or if the economic system changes to one in which the reproduction of capital—as we saw in East Berlin—is not prioritized, then the bomb damage lasts. And if you wanted to see what Berlin looked like at the end of World War II all the way through to the 1990s, you didnt have to travel very far in East Berlin to see it: There were houses that were visibly pockmarked by sprays of machine gunfire or shrapnel or whatever. And that was because East German socialism didnt reinvest in old building stock. It built new houses instead.

CA: Is there any economic response by the West that could make a difference right now for Mariupol?

AT: I dont think so, no. I think theres just an asynchronicity here between the timeline over which the battle in Mariupol will be decided. And one teeters on the edge of saying one hopes it will be decided quickly, right? This is the agony of a situation like this in a siege. What do you hope for? Do you hope for the population to hold out and to go on fighting? Or do you hope for an end to the agony?

But in any case, I think the timeline of that ghastly battle will be different from that under which sanctions will work. And I think its virtually unimaginable, given the prestige attached to the victory in this city, that Putin would, as it were, step back from the project. I think what the West could reasonably demand and what the wider international community should be demanding—and this is where China, for instance, or Israel or Turkey could play a really helpful role—is in demanding a humanitarian exit for that population so that whats left in the city are fighters, not civilians.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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