A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 18, 2022

The Strategic Reasons Ukraine Is Not Surrenduring Mariupol

The surrounded, outnumbered Ukrainian troops in Mariupol are performing a crucial strategic service. They are holding down thousands of Russian troops who might otherwise be freed up to join the anticipated Russian Donbas offensive. By continuing to fight, the Mariupol defenders thwart Russia's hope for decisive victory in Donbas. 

In addition, by holding out, the Ukraine fighters in Mariupol are also denying Russia a clear land corridor between Crimea, which it seized in 2014 and the Donbas, an area which Russia would then claim as its own. As if that werent motivation enough, after the revelation of Russian war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere, the Ukrainian defenders understand that they are unlikely to survive Russian captivity. JL

RFE/RL report, image Sergei Supinsky, AFP:

Russia has attempted to encircle Mariupol, an important port on the Sea of Azov. It is seeking to take control of the city, allowing it to link Crimea -- which it seized in 2014 -- with territory controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. At least 2,300 people have died in Mariupol. The defenders of Mariupol have tied up significant Russian forces encircling the city. Capturing Mariupol would allow Russian forces, which came up through the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula, to link up with troops in the anticipated Russian offensive.

Amid growing accusations of war crimes, Ukrainian forces and residents of Mariupol have continued what the government called their "heroic" resistance to a brutal Russian attack as the Ukrainian president restated his call for peace talks even as he took a defiant stand against the Kremlin's surrender ultimatums.


As Mariupol's Ukrainian defenders battled to stave off the deadly onslaught on March 21, Russian forces intensified and broadened their attacks elsewhere, including on the capital, Kyiv, where an air strike on a shopping mall and nearby apartment building killed at least eight people.

Ukrainian President President Volodymyr Zelenskiy remained defiant as Kyiv rejected a Russian ultimatum to surrender Mariupol, saying Ukraine could never give up the strategic port or other cities, including Kharkiv and the capital.

In comments to local media on March 21, Zelenskiy accused Moscow of trying to "destroy" his country. "Ukraine cannot fulfill Russian ultimatums," he said. "We should be destroyed first, then their ultimatum would be fulfilled."

He said the Russians wanted Ukraine to "hand over" the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol but that neither the Ukrainian people "nor me, as president, can do this."

In an interview with news site Suspilne on March 21, Zelenskiy restated his insistence on the need to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin "in any format" to end the fighting.

"I believe that without this meeting, it is impossible to fully understand what they are ready for in order to stop the war," said Zelenskiy, who added that any compromises made in talks with Russians would be put before the Ukrainian people in a referendum.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on March 21 that "significant progress" in the peace talks between negotiators is needed before a meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy would be a possibility.

Russia has for the past two weeks attempted to encircle Mariupol, an important port on the Sea of Azov. It is seeking to take control of the city, allowing it to link Crimea -- which it seized in 2014 -- with territory controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

At least 2,300 people have died in Mariupol, some buried in mass graves, authorities have said.

On March 20, an attack destroyed an art school sheltering some 400 people in the city. There was no immediate report on casualties, but authorities fear many people could still be under the rubble.

As the defense of Mariupol teetered on the verge of collapse, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed that his forces would put up determined resistance to the expected large-scale Russian offensive in the east of the country.

"We will not give up our territory," Zelenskiy told CNN in an interview conducted on April 16 and broadcast on April 17.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Zelenskiy said there was no guarantee Russian forces would not try again to take the capital, Kyiv, should its military be successful in the east of Ukraine, adding that the outcome of the war could be decided in the Donbas region, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.

“This is why it is very important for us to not allow them, to stand our ground, because this battle...it can influence the course of the whole war," Zelenskiy told CNN. "Because I don't trust the Russian military and Russian leadership."

"That is why we understand that the fact that we fought them off and they left, and they were running away from Kyiv -- from the north, from Chernihiv and from that direction -- it doesn't mean if they are able to capture Donbas, they won't come further toward Kyiv."

Russian forces faced tougher-than-expected resistance from Ukrainian troops and civilians in and around the Kyiv area, forcing them to retreat and refocus their efforts on expected attacks in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Russian troops continued to pound Mariupol after claiming they had cleared the urban area of Ukrainian soldiers and had surrounded the remaining troops in a massive steelworks plant.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has vowed a “fight to the end” amid the ruins of Mariupol and said the strategic port city "has not fallen," despite claims by the attacking Russian forces.

Shmyhal told ABC on April 17 that the "city still has not fallen. There's still our military forces, our soldiers. So they will fight to the end."

Shmyhal said that Kyiv wanted a diplomatic solution "if possible," but said, "If the Russians wouldn't like negotiations, we'll fight to the end, absolutely. We will not surrender. We won't leave our country, our families, our land. We will fight to the end."

Shmyhal again pleaded with the West to send more weapons and ammunition to aid Ukraine’s forces. He also urged nations to send additional financial aid. Ukraine is experiencing a "huge humanitarian catastrophe" and needs further help "to save our economy for future recovery," he said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that about 2,500 Ukrainian troops remain at Azovstal, a claim that could not be independently verified. Ukrainian officials did not mention any numbers for the city defenders.

The port city of Mariupol was home to 400,000 people before Russia's invasion. It has been under siege by Russian troops and under constant shelling for more than 50 days. The city has been reduced to rubble, amid claims by Russia that it now has near complete control. Thousands of civilians are believed to have died and tens of thousands remain trapped in the city.


Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on April 17 that the defenders of Mariupol have tied up significant Russian forces encircling the city. She described Mariupol as a “shield defending Ukraine.”

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukraine and Russia have failed to agree on humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of civilians and wounded Ukrainian troops from Mariupol.

"We have not been able to agree...about cease-fires on evacuation routes. That is why, unfortunately, we are not opening humanitarian corridors today," Vereshchuk said on her Telegram account on April 17.

If Russia's capture of Mariupol is confirmed, it would be the first major Ukrainian city to fall since Moscow’s unprovoked war began on February 24.

Capturing Mariupol would allow Russian forces in the south, which came up through the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula, to fully link up with troops in the Donbas region, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland and the focus of the anticipated Russian offensive.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its regular bulletin that Russian forces continue to redeploy combat and support equipment from Belarus towards eastern Ukraine, including locations close to Kharkiv and Severdonetsk.

Russian artillery continues to strike Ukrainian positions throughout the east of the country, where Russia plans to renew its offensive activity, the ministry said. But it pointed out that even though Russia’s operational focus has shifted to eastern Ukraine, Russia’s ultimate objective remains the same.

“It is committed to compelling Ukraine to abandon its Euro-Atlantic orientation and asserting its own regional dominance,” the ministry said.


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