In Mariupol, Putin now rules a wasteland pitted with mass graves

The city of Mariupol is now effectively in Russian hands. Although some Ukrainian troops continue to hold out at the Azovstal steelworks, the Russians have felt able to redeploy the forces used to assault the city. They leave behind an apocalyptic landscape that in many respects stands as a symbol of Russia’s strategic failure in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin set out to reanimate a Russian empire but has instead found himself master of a wasteland above ground and a mass grave beneath.

That Mariupol would be a target for the Russian military had been obvious since 2014, when Russian proxies initially seized the city and tried repeatedly to retake it after being driven out. A major industrial centre and port on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol would be economically vital to any annexed territory and in any case was on the main supply route from Rostov into southern Ukraine. The Russians assigned a significant force to take the city, though their composition shows that it was not Russia’s primary objective. The siege was prosecuted by troops from the 150th Rifle Division and 810th Naval Infantry Brigade reinforced with Chechen Rosgvardia and conscripted fighters from occupied Donetsk.

The Ukrainian military judged correctly that it 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 defences the Ukrainian military prioritised these for the capital. Trying to hold Mariupol would have meant fighting for a corridor to resupply the city, fixing Ukrainian forces into a killing area within range of Russian artillery. Ukrainian troops in Mariupol were tasked with holding out for as long as possible so that Ukraine might live.

Satellite imagery of fresh graves in Vynohradne, east of Mariupol. Photograph: Maxar Technologies Handout/EPA

In a war that has defied many expectations, the fighting in Mariupol conformed to conventional analysis. The Russian military surrounded the city on 2 March and proceeded to pin Ukrainian defenders into isolated pockets which could then be assaulted in turn. The Russians employed massive artillery fire to wear down the defenders, destroying most of the city in the process. In 1999 the Russians took six weeks to seize Grozny. Mariupol, with a slightly larger defence force, has been subjected to the same fate in seven. The Ukrainian general staff had feared it would fall sooner.

That Ukrainian forces held out for as long as they did testifies to the ferocity of the defence. Ukrainian troops in infantry fighting vehicles outmanoeuvred and defeated Russian tanks. Infiltration parties ambushed and destroyed Russian supply columns. Ukrainian helicopter pilots flew daring shuttles to drop off key supplies of food and ammunition. Supplies proved the critical bottleneck.

The Russians repeated their playbook from Syria. Strikes on hospitals and civilian shelters were used to terrorise the civilian population into evacuating. Driving the population from the city cleared the battlefield, allowing the Russians to concentrate against the defenders.

Some Ukrainian troops are holding out at the Azovstal steelworks.
Some Ukrainian troops are holding out at the Azovstal steelworks. Photograph: Mariupol City Council/Reuters

The will of the defenders to resist was also bolstered 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 has used this unit to characterise the entirety of the Ukrainian military. Given that Russia declared the war to be a campaign of denazification, Azov members expected no quarter. With emerging reports of mass graves and atrocities, their fears appear justified.

The siege of Mariupol holds a number of military and political lessons. From the military perspective it underscores why the Ukrainians must prevent cities from being isolated. Once cut off from supply, the defence can only last so long. The siege also highlights why attacking Russia’s logistics is vital. The Russian military has enough artillery ammunition to keep up a continual bombardment equivalent to that unleashed on Mariupol for five years. The constraint on that firepower is Russia’s ability to move the ammunition to the guns.

The political lesson from Mariupol, however, is that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an act of futility. Russia will have to level Ukraine’s cities if it wishes to occupy them. Underscoring the nonsense of Russia’s whole invasion is that among the troops sent to “denazify” Mariupol, many of Russia’s 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 hollow.

Dr Jack Watling is senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)

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