Mariupol, story of a battle that has become a symbol

Mariupol never stops falling. A handful of Ukrainian defenders remained barricaded in the vast steel complex of Azovstal, the city’s last Ukrainian bastion, on April 27. “Christ is risen, dear Ukraine”, In video released on April 24, one of them fell off the floor of a basement. An aggressive light then narrowly illuminates the pale face and bushy beard of Sviatoslav Palomar, the deputy commander of the Azov regiment. The voice is even, the air a little haggard. “On that big day (Easter), I ask the civilized world to do everything possible so that the soldiers who are performing a superhuman feat in this deserted city will one day be able to tell their families everything and visit their brothers’ graves. »

→ THE FACTS. In Mariupol, Ukraine chooses resistance at all costs

The defense of Mariupol, the main port of the Sea of ​​Azov and the first major Ukrainian city on the way to Crimea, has been reduced to a desperate pocket since late April, lying underground in the Azov Valley under the constant pounding of the Russian army. Perhaps a thousand and a half exhausted soldiers of the Azov Regiment and the 36th Marine Infantry Brigade, including about 500 wounded, are holed up there along with, according to Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boitchenko, between 300 and 1,000 civilians, families of soldiers, workers destroyed steel mill and other residents terrified by the idea of ​​a city under Russian occupation.

A primary secondary objective

A handful of exhausted soldiers who keep making the Russian defense minister lie. The latter had announced this to Vladimir Putin on April 21 “Liberation” of the city: East Mariupol “the capital of the Azov battalion”, then insisted that Sergei Shoigu face the Russian President. The unit, founded in 2014 by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis and later incorporated into the National Guard, became the ideal justification for an alleged invasion. “denazify” Ukraine. But Mariupol has become the representative of an entire conflict that was originally intended to result in a lightning victory for Moscow and which, against Ukrainian resistance, is turning into a long and brutal war of attrition.

→ ANALYSIS. “Moscow wants to prolong the fighting”: war of attrition in eastern Ukraine

In the first days of the invasion, Mariupol, with its population of 400,000, was a secondary target of a Russian army facing Kyiv and the major cities of Kharkiv or Odessa. The city shares with the rest of eastern Ukraine an identity forged in the fires of the steel mills, adding to it the unique ingredient of a maritime facade and a multicultural history. Its port certainly makes it an important logistical hub, but Moscow looks much further afield.

250 kilometers to the west, Russian tanks are pouring in from the Crimea on three axes, one of which is aimed directly at the port city. Less than 15 kilometers to the east, a front line immobile since 2015 squirms as Separatist units led by Russia’s 150th Motorized Rifle Division begin their offensive. Ukrainian counterattacks fail to prevent Russian troops from advancing: the city is surrounded on March 2nd.

However, the Russian army did not immediately hesitate to enter the city at the prospect of violent urban fighting. “Uncertain Russian Position Between Siege and Attack”,posted on March 6th in his daily analysis, the specialist Michel Goya. The massive strikes and early fighting in the suburbs signal the beginning of hell for a population now without running water, electricity or communications, and with temperatures regularly reaching -5 degrees. “It was a suspense, a constant horror, darkness in every sense of the word,”said on March 6th at the cross Diana Berg, a Mariupol activist who had just fled the siege. “Everything around you is shooting and exploding, you’re just trying to survive when there’s no food, no fuel, no clean water. » On March 9, a Russian attack on a maternity hospital brought the horror of the siege to global media headlines.

The “denazification” flip-flop

But even the violence of the bombings does not hide the growing difficulties facing the Russian army in the rest of Ukraine. His attempt to quickly seize Kyiv failed, and the encirclement of the city already seemed impossible. Kharkiv, only 40 kilometers from the Russian border, has still not fallen. Odessa remains unreachable. The number of fallen Russian soldiers is in the thousands. “The Russian military has no victory to record, and the Kremlin has nothing to ‘sell’ to Russian citizens,” he said. sums up Rob Lee, PhD student at King’s College London and specialist in the Russian army. State propaganda draws parallels between the Second World War and “special military operation in Ukraine”the capture of Mariupol and the destruction of the Azov regiment stationed in the city since 2014 becomes synonymous “Denazification”. And can Moscow offer this victory, which it still lacks.

→ ANALYSIS. War in Ukraine: Russians concede ‘significant’ casualties

Reinforced by the arrival of a naval infantry brigade, the Russian army began moving into the city itself in mid-March. The battle of Mariupol can then be observed on the Ukrainian side through videos a few tens of seconds long, most often posted by the Azov regiment on social networks. In one, a Ukrainian soldier crawls over a tin roof, shoulders his rocket launcher, and fires at a Russian armored car before driving off again, not without screaming “I destroyed it! » upset. The urban landscape is being devastated more and more, the pictures regularly show lifeless bodies on the streets – according to Kyiv, almost 10,000 residents died in the fighting, a figure that has not yet been verified.

Mariupol, symbol of the resistance

Progress was slow but real: Russian forces advanced into the city center on March 24, leaving about 5,000 defenders in two pockets, one along the port, the other in the industrial area. At the same time, the images sent by the Ukrainian soldiers are rare and vary in content. The regular briefings of the Azov deputy commander are literally getting darker: the natural light of a room on the surface is gradually being replaced by the cold and artificial light of a bulb in a basement, while the Ukrainian soldiers are leaving the buildings and the streets for the bunkers and the subways. “We have changed in forty-seven days, we have aged”, released Sviatoslav Palomar on April 18. “We dream of blue skies and bright sunshine. »

EXPLANATION. War in Ukraine: Azovstal, symbol of the iron will of the defenders of Mariupol

April calls “unlock” of Mariupol grow more and more desperate as the city’s fall seems inevitable. “It is currently impossible to unlock Mariupol by military means,” recognizes Advisor to Ukrainian President Alexei Arestovitch on April 11. “We are nearing the end” wrote a group of soldiers in a message published on the 36th Brigade’s Facebook account the same day.

The northern cauldron fell two days later – part of the 36th Brigade surrendered, while a handful of soldiers managed to find the men of the Azov Regiment in Azovstal. The outcome of the battle is uncertain. In a war that Kyiv now sees as ongoing, two months of siege will have enabled Ukraine to do so ” stare at “ locally more than 10,000 Russian soldiers and “to prevent the Russian army from using the city as a logistical base for attacks northward”, notes Mykhailo Samus, Ukrainian military expert. But the “Holy City of Mary”as Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk calls him in a song released April 22, has become a symbol of resistance for Ukraine as well.

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