The Current·Q&A

The strategic and symbolic importance of Mariupol, the Ukrainian city besieged by Russia

The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has been under siege for three weeks. University of Toronto professor Aurel Braun explains what control of the city would mean for the wider war.

UofT prof Aurel Braun says city is significant battleground for both Russia and Ukraine

Mariupol has been under siege from Russian forces for three weeks. (Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has been under siege from Russian forces for more than three weeks, while its symbolic and strategic value to both sides hangs in the balance.

The city has suffered weeks of intense bombing, with electricity and communication lines cut off, and food and water running low. From a pre-invasion population of 430,000, roughly 100,000 remain. In their last update a week ago, Mariupol officials said at least 2,300 people have died in the siege, but added that the true toll is probably much higher.

 Despite the devastation, on Monday Ukraine rejected Russian demands that fighters surrender the city, in exchange for safe passage.

The Current's Matt Galloway spoke to Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, about what control of the city would mean for the wider war.

Mariupol is a small city in northeastern Ukraine, on the coastline of the Black Sea. Why is that important, that detail? 

It is important both to Ukraine and to Russia for, as you mentioned, strategic reasons. There's great symbolism as well. And if you look at the reasons for each country, in the case of Ukraine, they are looking at a kind of epic resistance.

Today, it's one month since the Russian invasion of Ukraine — and the city's holding. The demands for surrender that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin made have been rejected. The fighting goes on even though one human rights organization described Mariupol as "a freezing hellscape riddled with dead bodies and destroyed buildings." 

So in a sense, this is a test. This is where the Ukrainian government and the Ukraine people may look upon Mariupol as a kind of Stalingrad, where they made the stand against the overwhelming odds, against naked aggression. And even if the city's eventually occupied, that resistance would be viewed as something that is truly epic. 

What about for the Russians? Strategically, we'll talk about that first: what significance does the city hold for Russia? 

The Russians would like to have a land bridge. They have made progress in the south of Ukraine. They have come in through Crimea, and they're trying to link up with the separatist regions, which are controlled by Russia, the eastern Donbas, Luhansk and Donetsk. And Mariupol is surrounded, and it is a kind of obstacle to having that kind of contiguity. 

It is also a kind of test of will. Vladimir Putin wants to show that there is no brutality that he's not going to use. In fact, [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson of Britain said that Vladimir Putin has crossed into barbarism. And if you look at what's happening on the ground in Mariupol, that's what it is. It is trying to send a message to the rest of Ukraine: "This is what's going to happen to you. We, Russia, the Kremlin, are not restrained by international law or by any sense of morality. Surrender is the only way you can save yourself." That is the message. 

Russian tanks on the outskirts of Mariupol on March 20. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Also, they are looking at the fact that some of the defenders belong to the Azov Battalion or sometimes called the Azov Regiment. And some of those people have been associated, there have been individuals with really sordid connections, neo-Nazis. And if the Russians can capture some of those, they can put them on exhibit and say, "You see, this is the fight against neo-Nazism." And let's not forget that from the very beginning, Vladimir Putin claimed that this is a fight, that for Russia, is one over an existential threat.

In a sense, it's a replay of the Great Patriotic War. The fight against Nazism, that the government of Ukraine is made up of a group of drug-addicted neo-Nazis, and if you can find examples of that, you can smear all of Ukraine with that label. 

So there's a propaganda piece to that as well?

Absolutely. 

In some ways, Mariupol was an obstacle in the 2014 [occupation] by Russia into Crimea.

Yes. This is a fairly substantial city. It's not a huge city, but over 400,000 people. It has very large industries, metal and chemical industries; [it is] a rather polluted city. But it was economically important to Ukraine. And in terms of connections over contiguity, it is a kind of obstacle to Russian military plans. And it's almost as if the Russians cannot admit that they have been failing, because in many ways the Russian invasion has been failing.

This was not the expectation that Russia had. Vladimir Putin and his supporters in the military, and the secret services expected that by now, Vladimir Putin would be holding a parade in Kyiv. A victory parade that they would be welcomed by the local population, or they could cow the local population into accepting Russian rule. So this act of defiance is this kind of combination of strategic concern, of symbolism, of history in the making.

WATCH | The battle for control of Mariupol

The battle for control of Mariupol, a key Russian target

5 months ago
Duration 4:35
Warning: This video contains distressing details. Russian forces continue their relentless assault on Mariupol, fighting for control as Ukraine refuses to surrender the besieged city. Plus, Royal Military College of Canada professor Walter Dorn explains why seizing Mariupol is strategically important for Russia.

And so if Ukraine were to hold back Russia again in Mariupol, I mean that also would be a symbolic, as you say, victory for Ukraine, for the Ukrainian forces?

Absolutely, it sends a message. And it's interesting that Russia wanted the formal surrender because that would have been this combination of symbolism, of humiliation, of sending the message to the rest of Ukraine that you are helpless, and you are hopeless and there's no point in fighting on.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited to reflect CBC's policy of referring to the 2014 annexation of Crimea as an occupation, not an invasion.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now