Mariupol, story of a battle that has become a symbol



Mariupol never stops falling. A handful of Ukrainian defenders remained, on April 27, barricaded in the immense steel complex of Azovstal, the last Ukrainian bastion of the city. “Christ is risen, dear Ukraine”, dropped from the bottom of a cellar one of them, in a video published on April 24. In a tight frame, an aggressive light then illuminates the pale face and bushy beard of Sviatoslav Palomar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment. The voice is even, the air vaguely haggard. “On this great day (Easter), I ask the civilized world to do everything so that the soldiers who achieve a superhuman feat in this abandoned city have one day the opportunity to tell their families everything and to visit the graves of their brothers. »

The defense of Mariupol, the main port of the Sea of ​​Azov and the first major Ukrainian city on the way to Crimea, has since the end of April been reduced to a desperate pocket undergoing in the Azovstal underground the constant pounding of the Russian army. Perhaps a thousand and a half exhausted soldiers of the Azov regiment and the 36and marine infantry brigade, including some 500 wounded, are entrenched there with, according to the mayor of Mariupol Vadim Boitchenko, between 300 and 1,000 civilians, families of soldiers, workers of a devastated steel plant and other terrified inhabitants to the idea of ​​a city under Russian occupation.

A handful of exhausted soldiers who continue to make the Russian defense minister lie. The latter had indeed announced on April 21 to Vladimir Putin the “liberation” of the city: Eastern Mariupol “the capital of the Azov Battalion”, then insisted Sergei Shoigu facing the Russian president. The unit, formed in 2014 by Ukrainian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis and later incorporated into the national guard, thus became the ideal justification for a supposed invasion. “denazify” Ukraine. But Mariupol has come to represent a whole conflict, initially supposed to lead to a lightning victory for Moscow and which, in the face of Ukrainian resistance, takes the form of a long and brutal war of attrition.

In the first days of the invasion, Mariupol and its 400,000 inhabitants were a secondary objective for a Russian army with its eyes fixed on kyiv and the big cities of Kharkiv or Odessa. The city shares with the rest of eastern Ukraine an identity forged in the fire of steel factories, adding to it the unique ingredient of a maritime facade and a multicultural history. Its port certainly makes it an important logistical hub, but Moscow is looking much further afield.

250 kilometers to the west, Russian tanks pour from Crimea on three axes, one of which is aimed directly at the port city. Less than 15 kilometers to the east, a front line that has remained immobile since 2015 twists, stretches and bursts as separatist units led by the 150and Russian motorized rifle division begin their offensive. Ukrainian counter-attacks cannot prevent the advance of Russian troops: the city is surrounded on March 2.

Hesitant in the face of the prospect of violent urban fighting, the Russian army did not, however, immediately enter the city. “Uncertain Russian attitude, between siege and assault”,written on March 6 in his daily analysis the specialist Michel Goya. The massive strikes and the first fights in the suburbs signal the beginning of hell for a population now without running water, electricity or means of communication, and while temperatures regularly reach -5 degrees. “It was a tension, a permanent horror, darkness in every sense of the word”, told on March 6 at The cross Diana Berg, an activist from Mariupol who had just fled the siege. “Everything is shelling and explosions around you, you’re just trying to survive when there’s no food, no fuel, no clean water. » On March 9, a Russian strike on a maternity hospital put the horror of the siege in the headlines of the planet’s media.

But even the violence of the bombardments fails to mask the growing difficulties of the Russian army in the rest of Ukraine. His attempt to quickly capture kyiv was a failure, and the encirclement of the city already seemed impossible. Kharkiv, just 40 kilometers from the Russian border, has still not fallen. Odessa remains out of reach. The fallen Russian soldiers number in the thousands. “The Russian military has no victory to its name, and the Kremlin has nothing to ‘sell’ to Russian citizens,” sums up Rob Lee, a doctoral student at King’s College London and a specialist in the Russian army. As state propaganda draws parallels between World War II and “the special military operation in Ukraine”the capture of Mariupol and the destruction of the Azov regiment, based since 2014 in the city, becomes synonymous with “denazification”. And can offer Moscow this victory which still eludes it.

Reinforced by the arrival of a marine infantry brigade, the Russian army began in mid-March to enter the city itself. The battle of Mariupol can then be observed, on the Ukrainian side, through videos a few tens of seconds long and most often posted by the Azov regiment on social networks. In one, a Ukrainian soldier crawls over a tin roof, shoulders his rocket launcher and fires at a Russian armored vehicle below before driving off again, not without shouting a “I destroyed it! » angry. The urban landscape is becoming more and more devastated, and the images regularly reveal lifeless bodies in the streets – according to kyiv, nearly 10,000 inhabitants would have died in the fighting, a figure still unverifiable.

Progress was slow but real: Russian forces advanced to the city center on March 24, leaving some 5,000 defenders in two pockets, one along the port, the other in the industrial zone. At the same time, the images sent by the Ukrainian soldiers are rare and change in content. The regular briefings of the deputy commander of Azov are getting darker, literally: the natural light of a room on the surface is gradually replaced by the cold and artificial light of a light bulb in a cellar, while the Ukrainian soldiers leave the buildings and the streets for the bunkers and the undergrounds. “We have changed in forty-seven days, we have aged”, released Sviatoslav Palomar on April 18. “We dream of blue skies and bright sunshine. »

In April, calls to “unblocking” of Mariupol are becoming more and more desperate, while the fall of the city seems inevitable. “Unblocking Mariupol by military means is impossible at present”, recognizes on April 11 the adviser to the Ukrainian president, Alexei Arestovitch. “We are nearing the end” wrote the same day a group of soldiers in a message, published on the Facebook account of the 36and brigade.

The northern pocket falls two days later – part of the 36and brigade surrenders, while a handful of soldiers manage to find the men of the Azov regiment in Azovstal. The outcome of the battle is uncertain. In a war that kyiv now sees lasting, two months of siege will have enabled Ukraine to ” to stare “ on the spot more than 10,000 Russian soldiers and “to prevent the Russian army from using the city as a logistical base for launching attacks towards the north”, notes Mykhailo Samus, Ukrainian military expert. But the “Holy City of Mary”as Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk calls him in a song released on April 22, has also become a symbol of resistance for Ukraine.

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