Mariupol Holding its Breath

As the tenuous truce holds in eastern Ukraine, fears of an imminent offensive against Mariupol are on hold but have far from disappeared.

As Russian forces advanced on the port city, the ceasefire was broken overnight on September 6-7 when a Ukrainian military checkpoint on Mariupol’s eastern fringes were shelled, leaving one woman dead. Two days earlier, a number of Ukrainian soldiers were killed in another checkpoint attack.

That incident raised fears of an imminent assault. Shops began closing and staff in offices began removing paperwork for safe storage elsewhere.

Capturing Mariupol would be a significant win for the pro-Russia forces as it is a major port and industrial centre, and stands in the way of carving out a land corridor between Russia and Crimea.

Residents interviewed by IWPR have been living in fear of invasion since the end of August. Forces that appear to be from the Russian army rather than local separatist groups are deployed at Novoazovsk, about 40 kilometres from the city limits, a location that could serve as a launchpad for an all-out offensive if the truce breaks down.

Mariupol was held by separatist forces earlier this year, but they were driven out in mid-June. From then until the end of August, the city was calm and effectively became the centre for the Ukrainian administration of Donetsk region. Provincial governor Sergei Taruta and his staff relocated here along with thousands of people displaced by conflict in other parts of east Ukraine.

The arrival of troops and armour in Novoazovsk created a wave of panic in Mariupol. Long lines of cars could be seen heading out of the city, and crowds formed at the railway stations.

No one here is in any doubt that it is Russian regular army troops, not irregular separatists, who have taken up position in Novoazovsk. Locals who have spoken to the men say they freely admit they are Russian army members, even though they wear no identifying insignia.

As well as an exodus, the capture of Novoazovsk created a new civic spirit of defiance in Mariupol as people turned out in their thousands – young and old, men and women – to dig trenches and build barricades, fill sandbags and place logs across roads. They are under no illusion that the fortifications will stop an armoured column, but the roadblocks might slow its advance and help Ukrainian forces put up a better defence.

“The separatists say they’re bringing us peace and defending us. Who from? Leave Mariupol alone,” said Sergei Dyakov, one of the volunteer trench-diggers. “We are leading peaceful lives and they want to throw tanks and Grad [rockets] at us. Have we asked for that? Why is someone deciding for us?”

The mood in Mariupol has changed since spring when pro-Russian sentiment was visible all across Donetsk region. Now anyone who still holds those views would not dare appear on the streets waving a Russian flag.

Instead, pro-Ukraine rallies have taken place in the city. On August 30, for example, thousands of people formed a live chain on the road to Novoazovsk.

One of the participants, Larisa, said she did not want to flee again after being forced to leave the town of Khartsyzsk, where she was a teacher.

“It will be terrible if we have to flee. We came here from Khartsyzsk to wait for the war to end,” she said. “We were beginning to think our town would soon be freed and we’d be able to go back. But now that Russia has sent in troops, it isn’t at all clear what’s going to happen.”

Apart from port traffic, the city’s economy is founded on two major steel plants. They are another draw for the pro-Russia forces, as the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic would be economically unsustainable without them.

“The Donetsk People’s Republic would be the death of Mariupol,” local businessman Kirill said. “Our whole city is based around the metals industry. How would it survive as part of an unrecognised state? It would be a black hole. No one would buy our output. Everything would come to a halt.”

Given the uncertainty, Kirill has temporarily closed his own business in Mariupol, sending staff on leave and packing the company documents into a box which is sitting in a garage in case he needs to move out quickly.

Denis Kazansky is a blogger in Donetsk.