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Why Mariupol is so important to Ukraine and Russia

Apart from being an important port and a symbol, Mariupol is on the land bridge that Russia has sought to establish between the separatist republics and Crimea.

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Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, has become the focus of international attention in the fourth week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After heavy bombardment, including strikes on civilian targets, Moscow demanded the surrender the city by sunrise on Monday.

The Ukrainian government rejected the ultimatum, and it seems inevitable that Russia will intensify its assault. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin seems to be fixated on taking Mariupol — even as his forces are stalled elsewhere in the country.

Why is Mariupol so important? In a Twitter Spaces discussion, Bloomberg Opinion’s Bobby Ghosh put that question to columnists Clara Ferreira MarquesAndreas Kluth and Leonid Bershidsky. This is an edited transcript of their conversation:

Ghosh: Can you give us some historical context of why this city is so important to Russia?

Bershidsky: Mariupol was always an important city for Ukraine and also for the pro-Russian separatists who established these “people’s republics” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014. It’s basically the only major port serving those regions. When Ukrainians managed to recapture it from the separatists during the first Russian invasion, that was a major success for Ukraine.

In the intervening eight years, it was turned into a Ukrainian stronghold, and it’s very important for trade. It’s also important for Ukraine as a symbol of successful resistance to the first Russian attack. That’s why there are serious Ukrainian forces defending the city now, surrounded by the Russian troops.

Apart from being an important port and a symbol, Mariupol is on the land bridge that Russia has sought to establish between the separatist republics and Crimea. That’s why Russia is very focused on either taking it or simply wiping it off the face of the earth, depending on how the resistance goes. Without Mariupol, there is no land bridge between Crimea and the separatist republics.

The Russian invasion has paused on other axes: It is not advancing on Kyiv, on Kharkiv or in the south because it’s very focused now on eliminating this pocket of resistance in and around Mariupol. All the Russian ire and firepower is now focused on that city.

Ghosh: Manolis Androulakis, the Greek consul general in Mariupol and one of the last European diplomats to leave, said this about what he saw there: “Mariupol will be added to the lists of international cities that have been destroyed, such as Guernica, Stalingrad and Grozny.” That should send a chill down spines in Europe. Has that carnage influenced European thinking on what should be done next, for Ukraine and against Russia?

Kluth: I think it has. The pictures from there are images of trauma, of inhumanity. Europeans, except for a few wingnuts, were already on the side of Ukraine. They are even more now.

But what you do in terms of policy is another question. We remain strategically in the same situation: We want to support the Ukrainians in every way we can, without causing any kind of escalation that would have NATO forces directly confronting Russian forces. We’re still trying to prevent that, both the U.S. and the European allies.

But at the same time, now everyone is forced by these pictures to ask what could come next. Chemical weapons? Even nuclear weapons? What could be a next response, given that we’ve already taken so many steps in terms of sanctions? What could be a new form of support for the Ukrainians or a new form of punishment for Putin?

Ghosh: How seriously should we take this talk of a European Union oil embargo on Russia? Can the Europeans pull that off? Are they willing to take the pain that would come with that?

Kluth: I think that option is more plausible now than it was just a few days ago. Opinion is teetering and Germany — which is both the largest European economy and very dependent on Russian energy — could tilt the balance. If Germany went around and said, “Yes, we’ll go along with a complete and immediate embargo,” then it would happen.

But let’s step back and look at why that’s still not likely. In the past week, we’ve had one group of German analysts saying Germany could pull it off: It would hurt the economy, but wouldn’t devastate it. Then a different think tank came out and said it would bring the German economy to its knees, and that it would not make the West stronger in the long term.

The economy minister, Robert Habeck, is frantically going everywhere, from Norway to Qatar to the United Arab Emirates, trying to organize alternatives to Russian gas. The problem is that in recent decades Germany, foolishly, has not only made itself dependent on Russian pipeline gas, but also has neglected to build out the terminals that could receive the ships carrying liquefied natural gas. So there is no short-term solution, no way to replace Russian gas with LNG from the Middle East.

So it’s a bind, but at least people are now talking. Germany is still transferring about 200 million euros a day to Russia, despite the sanctions. People are saying, “Wait a second: How can we be funding Putin’s war machine? We have the duty to stop that somehow. How can we do that?” If Putin escalates very dramatically, then the moral case might be so strong that even Germans will become willing to bear almost any economic price — turn off their gas, leave their lights off, stop driving — and impose an embargo.

Ghosh: An escalation looks almost certain. The Russian deadline for Ukrainian forces to leave Mariupol has expired, and the Ukrainians have said they’re not going to leave. I fear something even worse than what we’ve seen over the last few days is about to visit upon the city.

Ferreira Marques: But this is happening at a time of real strain within the upper ranks of the security system in Russia. There are reports of purges. Mariupol is obviously going badly for all involved.

Unfortunately, we know what the Russian forces did in Aleppo, and we know what they did in Grozny.

We all saw the video of Putin speaking at that rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium last week. It was a terrible speech, and he failed to rouse the crowd. But he talked about carrying on plans as expected, which tells you a lot about the path dependency of the regime. This is not a regime that will accept error.

And then at the end he quoted the biblical verse: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” To have president of Russia, at a time when his troops are committing atrocities in Ukraine, appeal to this particular line of the New Testament was quite something. It tells you a lot about the way the Putin regime has instrumentalized Christianity and the church in general.

Ghosh: What will you be watching out for in the week ahead?

Bershidsky: Obviously, the place to watch is Mariupol and the areas of eastern Ukraine where the old contact line used to be between Ukraine and the separatist republics. If the Russian military does destroy Mariupol and end the resistance there, they will try to encircle the Ukrainian forces that have dug in there for the past eight years. Militarily, this is an important week. –Bloomberg

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