Mariupol, thanks to its nature and location, has several important characteristics.
Firstly, it blocks a land corridor between Crimea and Donbass. Russian forces had burst out of the Crimean peninsula, and are trying to link up with Russian and separatist forces in Donbass. But in order to complete the land bridge, Russians need to take Mariupol.
Second, siezing Mariupol would put Russia in control of over 80% of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline. Mariupol itself is the largest port in the Azov Sea region. Capture of Mariupol would cause cutting off its maritime trade and making it even more difficult for Ukraine to be supplied with weapons.
Third, Mariupol has major iron and steel works, as well as manufacturing heavy machinery and serving ship repairs. In peacetime it is an export hub for Ukraine’s steel, coal and corn. Aside from blocking a portion of weapons shipments, more important consequence would be the strangling of Ukrainian economy. Should Russia keep Mariupol in a potential peace settlement, Ukraine will be reduced to a satellite state.
Fourth, Mariupol is the regional centre of Donetsk Oblast ever since 2014. when Donetsk became the centre of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Being part of the original Donetsk Oblast, rebels as well as Putin himself would want to include it into the rebel republic.
Mariupol is also home to the Azov Battalion (which is actually a regiment), named after a Sea of Azov which links Mariupol to the rest of the Black Sea. Azov forms only a fraction of Ukraine’s forces, but had been in the center of Russian propaganda about “evil Nazis” (despite Ukrainian government actually being far-left). Thus, capture of Mariupol would allow Putin to score a major propaganda victory at home.
Capture of Mariupol would also boost Russian morale by showing that Russia is achieving its war aims. At the same time, its resistance had been a major boost to Ukrainian morale. Fall of Mariupol might thus have significant negative consequences on Ukrainian morale – though it backfiring is also a possibility.
Siege of Mariupol has tied down significant numbers of Russian troops, at least 6 000 right now. If Mariupol falls, these will be free to be redeployed somewhere else, be it Donbass, Odesa, Dnipro or Kyiv.
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