How long will Ukraine fight for Mariupol?

News that the city of Mariupol, a major port in southeastern Ukraine, is about to fall has been in the news frequently in recent days. Russia has claimed victory several times and Ukraine has claimed that the city has not fallen into the hands of its adversaries. But how long will this stalemate last?

Russian troops control practically the entire city, except for the Azovstal steel factory, an industrial complex of 11 square kilometers located close to the port area of ​​the city.

The site was transformed into the main base of the Ukrainian forces, as it was built to resist bombing and has a network of underground tunnels that add up to about 24 kilometers. Moving through them undetected, some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters have withstood repeated Russian onslaughts. It is also in this complex of tunnels that around 2,000 civilians would be housed – who would be relatives of the combatants.

Mariupol is a military target of great strategic importance for two reasons: its conquest would guarantee Russia a corridor land linking its territory to Crimea (annexed by Moscow in 2014) and would deprive Ukraine of an important port – through which a large part of the country’s grain and steel production was shipped.

In practice, Russia has already achieved these goals. This is because it controls the main highways and railways that pass through the city connecting the region with Crimea. The port had its activities suspended since the beginning of the war, in 24 February. It is estimated that 140 foreign ships and their crews are currently stranded in Ukrainian ports, because Russia has placed a naval blockade on the country in the Black Sea – which is also riddled with naval mines.

There is no possibility for the defenders of Azovstal to break the Russian siege. They also have little chance of exchanging their uniforms for civilian clothes and escaping among the civilian population. Until now, the speech of the Ukrainians is to fight to the end.

Moscow has already offered at least three opportunities for the Ukrainian fighters to surrender. All of them have been turned down so far. Kiev wanted the establishment of a humanitarian corridor so that its fighters could escape without being arrested, but Moscow did not agree.

The reader may be wondering: why the fighters don’t surrender at once and wait for the next prisoner exchanges (which have been recurring)?

This has not happened so far because Ukraine wants to keep as many Russian troops as possible for as long as possible engaged in the Battle of Mariupol. While in the region, these troops cannot be deployed to reinforce Russian ranks further north, in the Battle of Donbass, according to Ukrainian Major General Andrii Kozhemiakin, commander of Kiev’s Mriya battalion, told this columnist.

Ukraine wants to buy as much time as possible so that its troops in Donbass receive more weapons that are being sent by the United States and its European allies.

Why does Russia not makes a final strike against Azovstal?

On Wednesday (20), Russian troops bombed and launched successive attacks against the industrial complex – but they failed to take it. Bombardments are ineffective in this particular area. It is believed that the complex could withstand even a nuclear attack. Therefore, combat has to be man-to-man – which greatly increases the number of casualties on both sides.

Russian President Vladimir Putin then ordered Russian troops to isolate the complex. , to prevent the entry of supplies and the escape of fighters. It is not known, however, the amount of water and supplies that the Ukrainians have, nor the number of wounded in their ranks.

In parallel, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had stated that he would not be possible to negotiate with Russia again if the Mariupol fighters are massacred. By offering successive surrender agreements, Putin also seems not to want to be blamed for the eventual failure of the peace negotiations.

This is the military and diplomatic scenario, but how are civilians in this account?

I was on Friday (22) at the refugee reception center in the city of Zaporizhzhnya, the 200 kilometers from Azovstal, and I found very few residents of the city of Mariupol.

This is because Russia has often not authorized the establishment of humanitarian corridors into the city. The last time this happened was on Thursday (21), but only 60 ) people managed to escape in some buses provided by the Ukrainian authorities.

The corridors are necessary because the battlefront in southeastern Ukraine is not consolidated. Bombings and clashes between the Russian and Ukrainian armies have been reported near Zaporizhzhnya – in cities such as Huliaipilske, Kamyanske, Novodanylivka, Orikhiv, Pavlivka, Vremivka, Temyrivka, Preobrazhenka, Charivne, Uspenivka, Mala Tokmachka, Malynivka, Poltavka and Novoandriivka.

In other words, it is very dangerous for citizens to take their vehicles and drive to the Ukrainian side, as they can be hit in the crossfire. But some people are doing it. They tie flags and white cloths to their vehicles and risk going through areas where it is not known whether there are troops or not.

The family of Alex Besmrtni, from 14 years, tried her luck and arrived unharmed. “We crashed at a checkpoint, but there were no Russians there, but troops from Dagestan (who fight alongside the Russians). We spent eight hours waiting until they let us through. But before we left, they said: ‘It’s no use you going to Zaporizhzhnya, because there will be the second Mariupol’”, he said.

The young man was the only member of the family able to speak a few words in English. To understand a part of his interview, I tried to use an online Ukrainian translator on my cell phone, but I was surprised by his reaction: “Put an English translation into Russian because I don’t speak Ukrainian very well.”

I had noticed that throughout Ukraine it is normal to hear people mixing Russian words into the Ukrainian language, but before coming to Zaporizhzhnya I had not encountered Ukrainians who do not know the official language of the country. And as he is a teenager, the fact cannot be attributed to the period of Soviet domination.

According to the only census carried out in Ukraine in the post-Soviet Union period, at the beginning of the years 2000, about 85% of citizens speak Ukrainian and just under 60 % speak Russian. Russian speakers are located exactly in the southeast of the country and in the Donbass region.

On Friday, Zelensky released another of his videos and this time he appealed to the residents of Zaporizhzhnya and Kherson: do not provide any information to Russian officials who claim to be conducting a census in the region. A large part of the Zaporizhzhnya oblast (state) is already controlled by the Russians. Kherson was the first Ukrainian city to be conquered.

“It is not just to take a census (…). It is not to give humanitarian aid of any kind. It is to falsify an alleged referendum in their homeland,” Zelensky said.

Russia says the invasion of eastern and southern Ukraine is aimed at freeing ethnic Russians who are said to have been disaffected and allegedly abused. human rights by the Zelensky government. The Ukrainian president says he fears that Putin will hold a fake referendum to further support this argument.

The issue is extremely complex and it does not seem possible to completely rule out either Putin’s or Zelensky’s views. But I have talked to many Ukrainians in the region and most say they are not concerned with politics, but with saving their families and having a decent life after the conflict.

On the one hand, there are still hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in territory recently occupied by Russia – 100 a thousand in Mariupol alone. But many have already left the region – more than 300 a thousand refugees were from Mariupol.

Despite speaking more Russian than Ukrainian, most of these refugees sought shelter on unoccupied Ukrainian territory, not Russia. This may give you a clue as to what is going on.

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