In Mariupol, Putin now reigns over a wasteland strewn with mass graves | Ukraine
The city of Mariupol is now effectively in Russian hands. Although some Ukrainian troops continued to hold on to the Azovstal steelworks, the Russians felt able to redeploy the forces used to attack the town. They leave behind an apocalyptic landscape which, in many ways, is symbolic of Russia’s strategic failure in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin set out to revive a Russian empire, but instead found himself master of a wasteland above ground and a mass grave below.
That Mariupol was a target for the Russian military had been evident since 2014, when Russian proxies first seized the city and repeatedly tried to retake it after being driven out. A major industrial center and port on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol would be economically vital to any annexed territory and was in any case on the main supply route from Rostov to southern Ukraine. The Russians assigned a large force to take the city, although their composition shows that this was not Russia’s primary objective. The siege was continued by the troops of the 150and Rifle Division and 810and Naval infantry brigade reinforced by Chechen Rosgvardia and enlisted fighters from occupied Donetsk.
The Ukrainian military correctly judged that this would neither be Russia’s primary objective nor easy to defend. kyiv was the vital ground in the initial phase of the war, and with very limited stocks of anti-tank missiles and air defenses, the Ukrainian military prioritized them for the capital. Trying to hold Mariupol would have meant fighting for a corridor to resupply the city, fixing Ukrainian forces in a killing zone within range of Russian artillery. Ukrainian troops in Mariupol were instructed to hold out as long as possible so that Ukraine could live.
In a war that defied many expectations, the fighting in Mariupol conformed to conventional analysis. The Russian army surrounded the city on March 2 and proceeded to pin the Ukrainian defenders in isolated pockets which could then be attacked in turn. The Russians used massive artillery fire to wear down the defenders, destroying most of the city in the process. In 1999, the Russians took six weeks to capture Grozny. Mariupol, with a somewhat larger defense force, suffered the same fate in seven years. The Ukrainian general staff had feared that he would fall sooner.
The fact that the Ukrainian forces held out for as long as they did speaks to the ferocity of the defence. Ukrainian troops in infantry fighting vehicles outmaneuvered and defeated Russian tanks. The infiltrating groups ambushed and destroyed the Russian supply columns. Ukrainian helicopter pilots flew daring shuttles to drop off essential food and ammunition. Supply proved to be the critical bottleneck.
The Russians repeated their playbook from Syria. Strikes against civilian hospitals and shelters were used to terrorize the civilian population into evacuation. Driving the town’s population cleared the battlefield, allowing the Russians to concentrate against the defenders.
The defenders’ will to resist was also reinforced by their expectations of what Russian troops would do to them if they were taken prisoner. Mariupol’s defenders were made up of marines and members of the Azov Battalion, a unit associated with a far-right political party and containing a significant proportion of neo-Nazis. Russian propaganda used this unit to characterize the entire Ukrainian army. Since Russia declared the war a denazification campaign, members of Azov expected no quarter. With reports of mass graves and atrocities, their fears seem justified.
The siege of Mariupol contains a number of military and political lessons. From a military point of view, this underlines why the Ukrainians must prevent the isolation of cities. Once cut off from supply, the defense can only last for a time. The siege also shows why attacking Russian logistics is vital. The Russian army has enough artillery ammunition to sustain a continuous bombardment equivalent to that unleashed on Mariupol for five years. The constraint on this firepower is Russia’s ability to move munitions to guns.
The political lesson from Mariupol, however, is that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a futile act. Russia will have to level Ukrainian cities if it wishes to occupy them. Underscoring the absurdity of the whole Russian invasion is that among the troops sent to “denazify” Mariupol, many Russian soldiers wore neo-Nazi insignia on their uniforms. As the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno reportedly told Fascist officers in 1936: “You will win, because you possess more than enough brute force, but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade.” Mariupol tells us that any Russian victory in Ukraine will be in vain.
Dr Jack Watling is Senior Land Warfare Researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)