Mariupol’s splintered loyalties could be enough for Vladimir Putin

Mariupol’s ship repair business was once sold almost exclusively to Russian customers. (Christopher Occhicone/Bloomberg)

Before escaping from Mariupol, a critical target of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “Nataliya” found herself arguing with some of the neighbors at her Stalin-era apartment building. They blamed the presence of Ukrainian defenders for Russian bombs and artillery shells destroying their beleaguered southern city.

For them, says Nataliya, it didn’t matter which flag they lived under, Ukrainian or Russian, as long as the shelling stopped. They believed Russian troops were targeting Ukrainian soldiers in the town and would, she added, have been happy to return it.

“I was ready to hit them all,” Nataliya said. A neighbor returned from a nearby police station that had just been abandoned, convinced that the Russian army would now stop shelling his neighborhood. She had also found a mop to take home. “They were so happy, so excited that day.”

The bombardment did not miss a beat. But for the future of a town whose capture seems only a matter of time, the reaction of Nataliya’s neighbors may be as important to understand as her anger.

Like the “liberated” residents of Mariupol interviewed by pro-Russian Telegram channels to describe how they were used as “human shields”, they either have Russian sympathies or believe in the pervasive Moscow-based media propaganda accusing the War Ukraine. Few people would have invited the invasion, but not all the locals want to fight it either.

Having left Mariupol on March 18, Nataliya and her companion had to stop while they were still in Russian-occupied territory, due to illness. After speaking with Bloomberg for several days, she turned off her phone before trying to reach Ukrainian-held territory a week ago, and has not been reachable since. Nataliya is not her real name. Bloomberg is not identifying him or his partner given the potential risks for them to do so.

“Russian troops would thoroughly inspect all basements for Ukrainian militants” as they moved through Mariupol, Nataliya said before leaving her last undisclosed location. “Above all, I’m afraid of being captured.”

If Mariupol falls, it would mark a significant moment in the war – a victory for Russian forces in an otherwise stumbling campaign. In one fell swoop, this would boost morale, consolidate supply lines, and free troops to turn north behind Ukrainian troops who continue to hold off Russia’s assault from the east.

Any troop withdrawals around the capital kyiv, as announced by Russia this week, could be redirected to the war effort in the east, where the capture of remaining territory in the Ukrainian oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk – including Mariupol – was made the number one objective of the invasion.

However, none of this would matter much if President Vladimir Putin could not consolidate control of the taken territory. Mariupol, a Russian-speaking steel town, is now largely destroyed and no longer pro-Russian, which it might have been ten years ago.

The town is just 60 km (37 miles) from the Russian border, meaningless until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and most people have relatives on the other side. Economic ties were also deep, with the port’s ship repair business and train carriage manufacturer selling almost exclusively to Russian customers. In the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian candidate deposed four years later, won 76% of the votes of residents of the Donetsk region, a higher share than anywhere else in the country.

This all started to change in 2014, when ties were severed after Russia annexed Crimea and started a war in Donetsk in response to Yanukovych’s withdrawal during a revolution, and more so since the Russian invasion of February 24. This week Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said 5,000 people had died in the siege, with around 160,000 civilians still trapped in the city.

Still, according to Nataliya, for those inside Mariupol, Russian news sources are easier to access than Ukrainian sources since the city’s broadcast and cell towers have been disabled. Many, like its neighbours, remain ambivalent at best about whether they would rather live under Kyiv’s or Moscow’s rule.

As a result, while Putin’s troops haven’t received the warm welcome in Mariupol that their initial campaign strategy assumed, he still has reason to believe he can impose a Russian future on the city. This has already been done, in Donetsk, a city twice the size and just 110 km to the north, which has been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

Then, as now, passionate pro-Ukrainians like Nataliya fled. If Mariupol was part of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) or Russia, they are unlikely to return.

In Donetsk’s experience, Nataliya’s neighbors and others like them are more likely to stay or return. Draconian law enforcement would ensure obedience. The city’s steelworks – with 40,000 employees and a combined annual output of 9 million metric tons – would still need labor. Rail links to Donetsk and other occupied territories in the north, cut since 2014, could start operating again.

“As soon as the hostilities end, we will immediately begin the restoration (of the city),” DNR chief Denis Pushilin said on his Telegram channel last week, while visiting a help center set up by the ruling United Russia party on the outskirts of Mariupol.

In Pushilin’s alternate reality, Russia and aid workers in DNR suits were delivering humanitarian aid to grateful Russian compatriots rescued from the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, a militia that wears neo-fascist insignia and is part of Mariupol’s defense. Some will want to believe it.

“Azov did not ceremonial civilian objects – they placed firing points there and deliberately destroyed them when they withdrew,” said Andrey Turchak, secretary general of United Russia, who accompanied Pushilin. “No one should doubt that Russia is here forever.”

The evidence that Russian aircraft and artillery were responsible for the devastation of Mariupol, rather than self-sabotage by the defenders, is overwhelming. Yet many only heard the Russian narrative, broadcast on strong FM signals from Radio Russia and Radio DNR. To listen to Ukrainian news channels, Nataliya had to find an old medium-wave radio.

Russian radio stations broadcast fake news, according to Nataliya, including repeated reports that Boychenko had fled, or that the Azov battalion had surrendered and changed into civilian clothes to escape, or that the Ukrainian army used civilians as human shields while deploying inside. the city.

She recalled how, on February 27, Mariupol quickly lost access to natural gas, electricity, cellular and internet connections, and running water. People moved to the courtyard behind their building to cook on fires fed with wood from furniture in their apartments or from nearby restaurants.

“We cooked food together, we shared water” collected from springs, Nataliya said of her neighbors. “Unfortunately, there were a lot of pro-Russians or neutrals.” His neighbors could not be reached for comment.

Over time, people began to bury their dead in the courtyard, some killed by bombings, others by heart attacks or other causes. Aircraft noise was worse, she said, knowing they could destroy a building with a single bomb.

Almost as serious was the lack of communications and therefore of information, whether about his mother and other relatives living east of the city, where the fighting was most intense, or about the possibilities of evacuation, the course of the siege or what was happening in the rest. from the country.

Nataliya and her partner delayed departure as long as they could, fearing the trip and stories of bombed convoys. But her partner had fallen ill from the dirty water they were drinking and was vomiting blood. They had to abandon his mother.

As they walked out, she said, the Russian soldiers dragged her partner out of the car and undressed, looking for any tattoos or weapons that might reveal him as a soldier. Eventually they let him go, but his illness meant they didn’t get very far before they had to stop, in an area still under Russian control.

In their new location, the soldiers were handing out food from Donetsk, trying to bribe people, as Nataliya said. The aid was adorned with ribbons, shaped in the shape of the now iconic “Z” of the Russian forces, as well as a logo. He said, “We don’t give up our people.”

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