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War in Ukraine: why is the city of Mariupol so important for the Russians?

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Besieged and devastated by bombardments, the city of Mariupol, in Ukraine, is causing concern among European leaders. And this can only be justified. Because for Moscow, winning this city is synonymous with a virtual victory.

For three weeks, the situation has been “desperate” in Mariupol, this port city of around 430,000 inhabitants located on the Sea of ​​Azov, in southeastern Ukraine. According to local authorities, 80% of the infrastructure in the area has been destroyed, some of which is beyond repair, causing distress to the 100,000 people trapped in the city.

Deprived of water, electricity and heating, the inhabitants suffer daily from the fear of the Russian landing, the bombardments and the sound of ambulance sirens transporting the wounded… and the dead.

After weakening the city and sowing terror among the Mariupolitains, Vladimir Putin offered an ultimatum to Volodymyr Zelensky. The Russian president has asked his Ukrainian counterpart to cede Mariupol to him. If Moscow attaches such importance to this city, there is a valid reason.

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A fatal economic blow

The fall of Mariupol would be a “fatal” economic blow for Ukraine and a symbolic victory for Russia. Since 2014, only 30 km separate the city from the separatist territories controlled by the Kremlin in the Donbass. “It is a major port city and a base for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. If Russia wants to have a land corridor (from Donbass) to Crimea, they must take control of Mariupol,” Andrii Ianitskyi, director of the Center of Excellence in Economic Journalism at the Kyiv School of Economics, told the Guardian.

Mariupol is also a metallurgical center where heavy machinery is manufactured and ships are repaired. Incidentally, Azovstal, one of the largest steelworks, was badly damaged by Russian bombing. Clearly, the Russian military is targeting civilian and economic infrastructure with the aim of causing as much damage as possible.

Also, the city is home to the largest commercial port in the Sea of ​​Azov, from which Ukraine exports grain, iron and steel. In 2021, the main destinations for Ukrainian exports from the port of Mariupol were Italy, Lebanon and Turkey.

A symbolic meaning

Mariupol is also part of Vladimir Putin’s vision of “Novorossiya”, (or New Russia), a territory stretching across eastern and southern Ukraine along the Black Sea coastline and considered by the Russian president as “historically Russian territory”.

After taking control of the Donetsk region, around 96,000 people fled the territory to Mariupol. And the city has long been claimed by the Donetsk People’s Republic. By capturing Mariupol, Russia would end up with full control of over 80% of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline.

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