Artem Seredechni hasn’t heard from his girlfriend or his friends in Mariupol since March 2. In the city, besieged by Vladimir Putin’s troops, there are many areas without electricity and without access to telecommunications, and he has not been able to contact them. Now, with Mariupol without heat, with hardly any drinking water, food or medicine, Seredechni, 20, fears for his life. “I am trying to locate people who live near them so they can at least tell me if their house is intact. I would even be willing to pay anything,” says the young man, who left the city with an evacuation group from his university to the center of the country shortly after Putin ordered the invasion.
The Russian siege of Mariupol, an important port town on the Sea of Azov, is intensifying. Fighting around the city, surrounded by Vladimir Putin’s forces, is becoming increasingly intense as tens of thousands of people are trapped unable to escape shelling and a situation that international medical organizations on the ground they consider disastrous.
The brutal attack on a maternal and child hospital on Wednesday, in which three people died, including a girl, and another 17 – including patients and health workers – were injured, has put the spotlight on a critical situation. But not even that catastrophe has managed to unblock the path to establish humanitarian corridors that allow the city to be evacuated. The artillery and mortar fire continues to harass the city, and this Thursday there has been no safe way to leave Mariupol, as denounced by the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister, Iryna Vereshchuk.
Mariupol, with 400,000 inhabitants, in the Donetsk region, has been a highly valued piece by the Kremlin for years. Control of that city is one of the keys to the invasion launched on February 24 by Vladimir Putin’s forces; its location would allow Moscow better logistics of supplies and reinforcements to the Russian Army further west. It would also facilitate an operation to make a pincer with which to surround the Ukrainian forces around the Donbas.
But above all, it would pave the way to complete a corridor, a land bridge from Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, to the Kremlin-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk territories via pro-Russian separatists, to which which he has supported for eight years and which are the basis of the argument for what Putin has called a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine and protect the population of Donbas, the area where the besieged Mariupol is also located. There, local authorities have collected more than 1,200 bodies from the streets in the last 15 days, according to Deputy Mayor Sergi Orlov. The crisis and the constant bombardments have not even allowed the bodies to be transferred to the cemeteries on the outskirts of the city and at least 47 have had to be buried in a mass grave; some “unidentified” Orlov has said.
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That land corridor that Russia longs for is not a new idea, but a long-standing aspiration of the Government. It dates back at least to Russia’s annexation of Crimea—unrecognized by the international community—when pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow declared the self-styled “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk and started the war in Donbas. The intention to trace this route has been one of the scenarios that Kremlin analysts and observers pointed to when Russia began to accumulate troops along the borders with Ukraine in November.
Now that Moscow has captured and occupied the city of Berdyansk, – also in the Sea of Azov – that land corridor would ensure the strategic Crimean peninsula’s supply of fresh water, something that has been limping since the annexation, since the Kiev government it still controls the Soviet-era channel that supplied it.
The capture of Mariupol, which saw heavy fighting at the start of the Donbas war and was under the control of Kremlin-backed secessionists for a month before the Ukrainian government took it back, would also give the Kremlin control of the world’s largest port. Sea of Azov, with deep piers and suitable for shipping. That would improve Moscow’s capacity and logistics performance between Russia, Donbas and Crimea.
With the strategic peninsula turned into a military fortress for years, Putin’s forces have been using it as a launch pad for the invasion and it has been key to taking over the port city of Kherson, on the left flank of Crimea, in the Black Sea. . Capturing Mariupol would also help Putin’s Army solidify the offensive on the southern flank, where they are making the most progress. It would also help them launch an operation against Odessa, the pearl of the Black Sea and a city of not only strategic importance for the Kremlin, but also historical and cultural, for its role in the imperial imaginary of what was ‘Novorossiya’, something that Russian nationalists want to revive. Russia taking control of the shores of the Sea of Azov would be a catastrophe for Ukraine, though it would give Putin a victory he could sell at home. But losing control of all its coasts, including those of the Black Sea — where three NATO countries also have waters: Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania — would be an economic, logistical and security catastrophe for Kiev.
The harsh siege of Mariupol, with massive, overwhelming and indiscriminate bombing tactics that Putin already used in the wars in Syria and Chechnya is also a terrible omen for other Ukrainian cities such as Kharkov, Kiev or Chernihiv. Putin’s troops are already heavily besieging this last town, in the north of Ukraine and on the road between Belarus and Kiev. There, the repeated bombings against critical infrastructure are putting its 300,000 inhabitants in a disastrous situation, according to the mayor, Vladislav Atroshenko. The city is no longer connected to the electricity grid, some areas lack potable water and gas supplies can run out in 24 hours, according to the mayor.
In Mariupol, shops have been looted for days, according to Sasha Volkov, an employee of the International Red Cross. More and more people are sick from the cold. Artem Seredechni follows the news up to the minute, trembling with impatience for a humanitarian corridor to be agreed so that the more than 200,000 civilians who, according to local authorities, are trapped in a desperate situation, can leave. “People use the snow to get water and cook what they can and how they can on open fires. This is the 21st century, the most basic human needs are not covered: security, tranquility and resources that allow us to lead a normal life”, he laments.
The attack on the Mariupol mother and child hospital, which Russia has justified by claiming – without evidence – that it was used as a base for a radical militia, has sparked international condemnation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has again accused the Kremlin of committing “war crimes.” The person in charge of Foreign Policy of the EU, Josep Borrell, has defined it as a “heinous crime”. The air raid on the port city’s health center is the third on a mother and child hospital since the invasion began, according to the UN.
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