Will the fall of Mariupol change the course of the war in Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his forces captured the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol a month ago. Only now, however, does it seem to be true.

Herculean resistance from several hundred Ukrainian fighters holed up in the city’s sprawling steel factory drove Russian troops and artillery back for weeks. Many died or were injured. Civilians also went into hiding to survive in a labyrinth of tunnels below the plant. Ukrainian commanders said they would never give up.

But this week, after most of the civilians were rescued by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the battle is over. About 260 Ukrainian soldiers were captured and transported to Russian-controlled territory. Ukraine’s loss of Mariupol – the first major victory in Russia’s nearly three-month war – it is symbolically and operationally painful.

Why did Russia fight so hard to take Mariupol?

Mariupol is located in southeastern Ukraine, on the Sea of ​​Azov. Across the blue waters, just over 100 miles away, lies Russia.

It has been a bustling port for the import of goods and the export of grain and other agricultural products. It’s not like narrated as Odesa, about 300 miles to the west, but it is an important cog in the Ukrainian economic machine.

A Ukrainian military man guards his position in Mariupol, Ukraine.

A Ukrainian military man guards his position in Mariupol, Ukraine on March 12.

(Mstyslav Chernov / Associated Press)

The capture of Mariupol offers Russia a land bridge between the Ukrainian territories it illegally occupied several years ago. From Donetsk, an area in the southeastern Donbas region that Russian-backed separatists seized in 2014, to the Crimean peninsula, occupied and annexed by Russia in the same year, control of Mariupol connects the two and gives Russia a freer passage through the south and east.

Is there an additional symbolic or political meaning for Russian leaders?

Putin eagerly sought a victory in this war, after his first calculations seemed to have failed. Far from overthrowing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky within days of the February 24 invasion and setting up a puppet government, Putin, facing fierce resistance, had to withdraw from the capital Kiev. And Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, which once appeared to be on the verge of falling to Russian forces, reacted and pushed the enemy further north.

With Mariupol, Putin can finally aim for a significant result in a conflict that has defined the expectations of both sides, has claimed thousands of lives and generated some 6 million refugees.

And, with Mariupol in office – presumably – Russia can redeploy its fighting forces from the port once numbered around 20,000, according to US military intelligence, to the tough battles taking place elsewhere in the Donbas. The Russian forces’ strategy is to surround Ukrainian soldiers in what appears to be a war of attrition in the east.

And Ukraine’s interest?

The defeated port also became a symbol of resistance and survival for the Ukrainians.

Parents, their children and their pets, who took refuge in the tunnels of the steel mill, were shown in dire and dark conditions, with little food or water, in photos taken by soldiers and posted on social media. Some who fled said they hadn’t seen the sun for two months. Many Ukrainians considered them heroes for their determination and tenacity.

What will happen to the Ukrainian soldiers now in the hands of the Russians?

Russia does not have an outstanding record in the treatment of prisoners of war. Additionally, some Ukrainian survivors reported their shock at the hatred Russian soldiers seemed to harbor towards them, apparently adhering to Putin’s propaganda about the flooding of Nazis in Ukraine.

Zelensky said he wanted the soldiers to take home as soon as possible. Several prisoner exchanges took place in this war. Apparently such an agreement has been reached in Mariupol, but the future of those Russian-held soldiers is uncertain.

“To bring the boys home, the work continues, and this work needs delicacy. And time, ”Zelensky said.

A resident passes a damaged building in Mariupol, Ukraine, in an area controlled by the Donetsk People's Republic.

A resident passes a damaged building in Mariupol, Ukraine on Friday in an area controlled by the Donetsk People’s Republic.

(Alexei Alexandrov / Associated Press)

Amnesty International, the human rights organization, has also expressed alarm over the fate of the soldiers.

“Amnesty International has documented the summary killings of prisoners by Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, as well as the extrajudicial executions of Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces in recent weeks,” the organization said in a statement. “The soldiers of the Azov Battalion who surrendered today do not have to suffer the same fate.”

Can the destruction of Mariupol be repaired?

Not quickly, even if the war ends soon. Once a vibrant and cosmopolitan city of nearly half a million people, the incessant Russian bombing has obliterated apartment buildings, hospitals and schools, and an enormous amount of infrastructure. The city looks like a huge, uncontrolled fire. Officials say it is too early to contemplate recovery and reconstruction. They are still looking to survival.

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