Last Thursday, day 22121251 in April, Russia claimed to have “liberated” the port city of Mariupol, Ukraine. The statement came at a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The meeting, televised and almost scripted, was to present the update report on the war, especially in relation to the port city. At the meeting, Putin stated that it would be “impractical” to take the last bastion of Ukrainian troops in the city and ordered that the region be surrounded and blocked off, “so that not a fly can get through”, and Putin’s order has explanations.
In practice, despite the announcement of “liberation”, part of the city is still under Ukrainian control. These latter defenders have even declared that they will not surrender, saying that the images of the dead seen in the north of the country would be a “warning” of the consequences of surrender. The main place of concentration of these Ukrainian forces is the huge steel mill Azovstal, a region with about ten square kilometers full of tunnels, buildings and sheds, an urban scenario that, in confrontation, favors the defender.
Lives and “hostages”
According to the Russian government, about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are in the steel mill region, including members of the Azov battalion and other neo-Nazi groups. . The Russian plan has, therefore, as the first reason, the siege so that these defenders are increasingly limited in provisions and ammunition. A frontal attack would be costly in lives, and Russia has already suffered many casualties in the war. It is less risky to maintain an eventual siege and the constant bombardment of the area.
To understand the second reason for Putin’s order, it is necessary to remember the importance of the city. Until the beginning of the war, Mariupol was the largest Ukrainian port on the Sea of Azov, inland from the Black Sea. Symbolically, the city is also the birthplace of the infamous Azov Battalion, an important part of Russian rhetoric of “denazification” of Ukraine. The city is in the oblast of Donetsk, recognized as independent by the Putin government on the last day of 21 of February.
Even devastated by the conflict, the city fulfills a strategic role. Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol would be the last obstacle preventing a direct link between Russian forces in the south, in Crimea, and forces in the east, in Donbass. The land connection would allow better transit of supplies and forces, and the taking of Mariupol would also allow all Russian forces in the east to focus on the offensive in the Donbass region. Putin’s order to maintain a siege instead of a frontal attack also allows him to move more forces to the rest of Donbass, taking part in the Russian offensive.
Finally, there is a third reason. Should Russian forces succeed in laying siege to the Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol, it could use this situation as a bargaining chip in the negotiation process for an end to the war. In practice, these defenders may be treated as “hostages”. A bloodbath in a fight to the last man on every corner of town would be counterproductive to the negotiation process. The free passage of these defenders can be exchanged for prisoners, for example.
In another news indirectly related to the conflict, last Wednesday Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile. Vladimir Putin said the new equipment will make “Moscow’s enemies stop and think”. He also highlighted that the development and production of the missile was done entirely by Russia, without the use of imported components. Perhaps a reference to the fact that part of the Russian arms industry suffers from international sanctions and cannot replace Russian losses in the war with an appropriate speed.
Much has been said that the launch would be a show of force in the midst of conflict. Yes, it is part of the rhetoric of remembering that Russia, despite its military setbacks in Ukraine, is a nuclear power whose “existence cannot be threatened”. At the same time, the missile was already under development in recent years as part of the upgrade of Russian intercontinental ballistic missile systems.
There is also the fact that, by international treaties, this type of test is warned in advance. There is no possibility that Putin, Biden, Macron, whoever, will wake up in a bad mood and order a ballistic missile launch just as a provocation. Precisely because such a launch would cause apprehension and the risk of retaliation, every ballistic missile test is communicated between the powers.
Finally, it is interesting to contextualize the use of the term “Satan” to refer to the new missile, a term widely used in the US media. The missile’s official name is RS-18 and received, in Russia, the codename Sarmat ), referring to the Sarmatians, a confederation of Iranian peoples of classical antiquity. They mainly inhabited the Caucasus and Central Asian regions, in a small example of Eurasia’s importance as a Russian geopolitical focus. Soviet and later Russian military equipment always received a name from NATO, with numerical reference and codename.
This has its origins in the Cold War, when the “true” name of the equipment was not known to Western authorities until long after development. The Soviet ballistic missile R-36M, of 1280, gained the western codename of SS-
Satan. In this case, SS for “Surface to Surface
“, English for “surface to surface”. As the new missile is considered the successor to this old model, it earned the NATO name of “Satan 2”. That is, a western “fancy name”, which is not used by the Russians who develop it.
The repercussion of the launch caused much more fanfare, and even sensationalism in some cases, in the press than in government circles or specialized analysts. Again, as it was already foreseen. In contrast, Putin’s order on Mariupol, and the announcement of the “liberation” of the city, are very interesting and could have more practical impact in the coming days than a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a deterrent weapon par excellence. Even the possibility of Ukrainian defenders eventually breaking the siege suffered can be even more impacting.