Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 497, 6 April 2022

Ukraine: Russia's battle for Mariupol
Sruthi Sadasivam

In the news
On 31 March, Russia's President, Vladimir Putin claimed that "the shelling of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol will only end when Ukrainian troops surrender." Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been sent to Mariupol to raise the fighting spirit of the soldiers and to procure them extra weapons. He claimed that "Russian servicemen are going from building to building to free Mariupol from Nazi bandit groups."

On 3 April, Russia's Defense Ministry said, "High-precision sea and air-based missiles destroyed an oil refinery and three storage facilities for fuel and lubricants" at Odessa that were supplying fuel to Ukrainian troops.

Issues at large
First, the Russian strategies in Mariupol. Russia has forcefully deported thousands of Mariupol civilians to Yaroslavl and Taganrog regions. Although, Russia agreed to open humanitarian corridors from 31 March, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has already postponed its evacuation endeavors twice due to unfavourable external conditions. Further, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk accused Russia of blocking bus convoys that were heading to evacuate Mariupol civilians. The region is running out of food and water making daily life strenuous for the civilians. Additionally, Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure have rendered grave human casualties.  

Second, Mariupol's strategic significance for Russia. The town's location is crucial for Russia's geostrategic objectives and its historical ties. It is a port in proximity to the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The city is part of Putin's vision of "Novorossiya" consisting regions of Kherson, Kharkov, Donetsk, Lugansk, Nikolayev and Odessa. Moreover, the Mariupol control would legitimize Putin's agenda of de-Nazification as the region houses the Azov battalion which has strong roots in Neo-Nazi groups. Additionally, Russia intends to construct a land corridor between the Donbas region and Crimea which would help it acquire control over 80 per cent of the Black sea coastline and hinder Ukraine's maritime trade.

Third, Russia's Black Sea objectives beyond Mariupol. Prior to the war, Russia used to conduct regular military exercises in the Black Sea. The international agreement permits Turkey to block Russian warships to navigate across the black sea in the time of war by shutting off the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits. These straits are strategically significant for Russia as the latter's Black sea fleets are stationed in the Black sea, the Sea of Azov and the Mediterranean Sea which facilitates its Mediterranean Squadron operations and supply operations in Syria.

In perspective
First, Russia's military operations in Mariupol are likely to continue. While Russia has pledged to stop shelling in the wake of the surrender of Ukrainian soldiers, Ukraine has rejected any question regarding surrender. Russia's forced deportation of Mariupol civilians connotes that it is clearing the air to start the construction of the Crimea-Donbas land corridor. Furthermore, the presence of the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov in Mariupol to boost personnel morale indicates Russian swiftness in operationalizing its objectives.

Second, although Russia launched missile attacks on Odessa's oil refinery and storage facilities, it is facing serious difficulties in progressing beyond Mykolaiv. The strong resistance from Odessa civilians might further delay Russia from gaining control over the region. However, Russia can easily advance towards Transdniestria, Moldova's separatist-controlled region where Russian troops are stationed from Mykolaiv, and control Odessa, cutting it off from the rest of Ukraine.

Third, Russia's military weakness in specific spheres was brought to limelight through this war. Thereby, Russia might have to work on strengthening its logistics support and communication facilities to succeed in the long run.

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