The video was widely shared on social media. Broadcast on the Facebook social network on Wednesday April 20, we see a Ukrainian commander in fatigues, Serguiy Volyna, calling out to the international community. “We may be living our last days, even our last hours,” said this beleaguered officer in Mariupol, in the south-east of Ukraine. Less than 24 hours after the publication of these images, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the “liberation” with “success” of the city by his troops.
For more than two months, this strategic port, which had nearly half a million inhabitants before the war, has been shelled relentlessly. A pocket of resistance remains, however, in the huge Azovstal factory. Housing several thousand soldiers and civilians in its basements, this industrial site is now besieged by Russian forces. Judged for the time being “questionable” by US President Joe Biden, could the capture of the city by Vladimir Putin’s army mark a turning point in this conflict? 20 minutes make the point.
A coveted site since the beginning of the conflict
The port of Mariupol, located on the shores of the Sea of Azov, is a major strategic objective for the Russian authorities. Its geographical location and its economic weight for the Ukrainian government have contributed to making the city a prime target in the conflict. “A large part of the grain produced by kyiv is exported from Mariupol. Even if the volumes that pass through this port remain lower compared to Odessa, it remains an important site, “explains to 20 minutes Carole Grimaud-Potter, professor of geopolitics specializing in Russia at the University of Montpellier. Controlling Mariupol would also allow Vladimir Putin to connect Donbass to the south of the already occupied country.
The capture of the city could also alter Russia’s military involvement in the region. According to the US Department of Defense, the fall of Mariupol and the end of the fighting in the city would allow the release of nearly “12 tactical groups of battalions, or approximately 8,000 soldiers or more”, reported on Wednesday American magazine website Foreign Policy. A redeployment to be nuanced, however, with the physical and moral state of the troops engaged in Mariupol who have had to face, for two long months, significant resistance from the Ukrainian forces. “If Mariupol definitively surrendered, it would not be the end of the war. Total control of Donbass still remains an objective for Russian troops,” adds Carole Grimaud-Potter.
A propaganda tool
Beyond the strategic and military interest, the fall of Mariupol would have a “symbolic” value for Vladimir Putin. “Retaken by Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea, the city is also the birthplace of the Azov battalion which has since joined the Ukrainian national guard. This battalion, which included neo-Nazi elements within it, is directly targeted by the Russian authorities. By taking Mariupol, it would be a victory for the Kremlin for the supposed denazification of the country”, analyzes the specialist in geopolitics. “The capture of this port would be timely for the upcoming celebrations of May 9, a symbolic and historically charged date” for the Russians, she adds.
Conversely, the control of the city by Russia could have disastrous consequences on the morale of the Ukrainian forces. An issue of which President Volodymyr Zelensky is fully aware. In a message posted on April 10, he described Mariupol as “the heart of this war”: “She is fighting, we are fighting, we are strong. If she stops fighting, we will have weaker positions”.
Last but not least, the passage under the Russian flag of Mariupol would jeopardize innumerable international and national legal proceedings. Since the start of the war, several abuses targeting civilian buildings such as the municipal theater or a children’s hospital have been documented. The control of the city by the Russians could thus jeopardize the collection of evidence and testimonies necessary for the smooth running of these investigations for war crimes. “With the fall of Mariupol, we are moving a little further from the truth,” concludes Carole Grimaud-Potter.