What the Fall of Mariupol Would Mean for the War

A propaganda win for Russia, a big battlefield boost, and a way to hide evidence of war crimes.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Russian soldier patrols at a theater in Ukraine.
A Russian soldier patrols at a theater in Ukraine.
A Russian soldier patrols at a theater as Russian troops intensify their assault on Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 12. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Before Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was a thriving Black Sea port home to almost half a million people. Having been encircled by Russian troops since early March, the city has seen some of the most bitter fighting since the war began as Russian forces have laid siege to the city, cutting it off almost entirely from the outside world.

After several weeks of heavy bombardment, including attacks on a maternity hospital and a theater where hundreds of civilians were seeking shelter, the last remaining pocket of Ukrainian forces have sought refuge in the Azovstal iron and steel plant, a sprawling complex that covers four square miles. Ukrainian officials estimate that some 100,000 civilians remain trapped in the city, as David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, warned that they were being “starved to death.”

An update on the war issued by the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington on Tuesday noted that more than 1,000 civilians, including women and children, remain in the basement of the steel plant, which has been subject to heavy bombing and artillery fire.

Before Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was a thriving Black Sea port home to almost half a million people. Having been encircled by Russian troops since early March, the city has seen some of the most bitter fighting since the war began as Russian forces have laid siege to the city, cutting it off almost entirely from the outside world.

After several weeks of heavy bombardment, including attacks on a maternity hospital and a theater where hundreds of civilians were seeking shelter, the last remaining pocket of Ukrainian forces have sought refuge in the Azovstal iron and steel plant, a sprawling complex that covers four square miles. Ukrainian officials estimate that some 100,000 civilians remain trapped in the city, as David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, warned that they were being “starved to death.”

An update on the war issued by the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington on Tuesday noted that more than 1,000 civilians, including women and children, remain in the basement of the steel plant, which has been subject to heavy bombing and artillery fire.

“[T]his is what hell on earth looks like,” Maj. Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, which is still in the city, wrote in an open letter to Pope Francis on Monday, which was published in English by the newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda. “I have little time to describe all the horrors I see here every day. Women with children and babies are living in bunkers at the factory, they are hungry and cold.”

Ukrainian troops have rejected a series of ultimatums from the Russians to surrender despite warnings from Moscow that any remaining forces “will be eliminated.” Although the city has held out significantly longer than anticipated, if it were to fall, it would hand Moscow its first big win of the war so far.

Here’s what that could mean for the course of the war—and efforts to preserve evidence of alleged Russian war crimes carried out in the city.

A Propaganda Victory

Just seven weeks into the war, Russia has already been forced to drastically alter its war aims after initial efforts to seize Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in a lightning attack were hamstrung by poor planning and fierce Ukrainian resistance. Russian forces have so far only seized control of one big Ukrainian city, Kherson, along the southern coast, which had a prewar population of almost 300,000 people.

Having withdrawn from the Kyiv region, Moscow is focusing its efforts on eastern Ukraine, which has seen a dramatic uptick in Russian strikes in recent days, marking the beginning of a new offensive in the Donbas. Russian forces have already seized large swaths of the Luhansk region and much of the southern coastline along the Sea of Azov.

If Mariupol were to fall in the coming days, it would hand Moscow its first significant win of the war, albeit a pyrrhic one. “Mariupol should have been gone in the first week. They had all the advantages, and yet here we are,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the U.S. Army Europe.

Some Western officials believe that Moscow may be operating under self-imposed pressure to have something to show from the war effort by May 9, when Russia celebrates the end of World War II. “Putin needs to control Mariupol as soon as possible and before the end of the month, as he needs a success before May 9,” said a European official speaking on background on condition of anonymity.

The day carries huge significance in Russia, as the Soviet Union lost as many as 27 million people in the war. Memory of the country’s fight against fascism has been distorted for contemporary political ends in recent years, as the Kremlin has sought to cast the war in Ukraine as one of “denazification.” Like many European countries, Ukraine has grappled with the far right, but there is no evidence to suggest that the country has become beholden to them. A coalition of far-right parties won only around 2 percent in 2019 parliamentary elections, whereas the party led by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—who is Jewish—won an overwhelming majority.

But seizing Mariupol could inject some life into an otherwise debunked Kremlin talking point. Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, which was founded in 2014 by volunteers with deep links to the far right, has been integral to the city’s defense. “Russia would likely try to spin their control of the city where Azov operates as part of its ‘denazification’ efforts,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher with the Rand Corporation who specializes in Russian military strategy.

A Tactical Victory

Seizing full control of Mariupol would have profound implications for Russia’s war effort and broader strategic goals. The U.S. Defense Department estimates it would free up an estimated 12 battalion tactical groups, roughly 8,000 or more troops, but they may not be battle ready. “If they’ve been there for weeks, I don’t anticipate that they’re going to be in great condition to turn around and take part in a new offensive,” Hodges said.

As Moscow has struggled with high rates of attrition and low morale, these forces could be redeployed as part of the anticipated escalation of fighting in the Donbas.

Mariupol would also give Moscow a strategic foothold on the Sea of Azov from which to push north in a bid to link up with Russian forces coming down from Kharkiv. “They have to get through Mariupol in order to go north,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation. It would also allow Moscow to link up two of its main axes of attack: from Crimea and the Donbas.

Shortly before the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country would recognize the independence of breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, seized by Moscow’s proxies in 2014. The territory recognized by Putin went far beyond the pockets of the land in far-eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed rebels and instead expanded to the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Analysts now believe that Moscow seeks to seize control of the two regions, including Mariupol, the largest city in Donetsk region, which was under Ukrainian control before the war began in February. Seizing control of the entire region would give Moscow a substantial bargaining chip in peace talks and something to spin as a victory despite having had to drastically scale back on the war’s initial ambitions.

Mariupol also stands in the way of another one of Russia’s goals: creating a so-called land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014. “We believe the Russians want [Mariupol] for a number of reasons. One is giving them an unencumbered land bridge from the Donbas to Crimea,” the senior U.S. defense official said on Tuesday.

Although the fall of Mariupol would be a boon for Russian forces, it would not necessarily play a decisive role in the coming battle in the Donbas, as analysts note that Russia will still struggle to rally its battered, bruised, and (in many cases) dead troops.

Obscures Evidence of War Crimes

With Mariupol largely cut off from the outside world for several weeks, getting a detailed picture from the ground has been challenging. But Russia’s indiscriminate use of force and track record of apparent summary executions in Bucha, Ukraine, and other occupied territories have raised fears about what horrors have taken place in the port city. Ukrainian officials fear that the death toll in Mariupol could already exceed 20,000.

Any efforts to gather the kinds of forensic evidence required to document the atrocities and bring those responsible to justice would likely be impossible under Russian control.

“Ideally, what should happen is that areas where bodies are found should be cordoned off until there can be some kind of recovery and analysis of the remains,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. Ballistic experts would be deployed to assess the types of weapons used, the direction from where they were launched, and any signs of disproportionate use of force, she said.

“There is a serious concern that aside from the need to just recover bodies to get an estimate of the numbers of civilian casualties from the bombing and shelling, there would still need to be a forensic examination of the bodies of people who died as a result of summary execution and other types of violence,” Denber added.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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