Why is Mariupol so important to Russia and Ukraine?

The southern port city of Mariupol has become the epicentre of the Ukraine conflict in the past few weeks, with questions over what lies next for the under-seige location

The world has watched on in horror as the Ukrainian city of Mariupol has been reduced to rubble.

The city has found itself the centre of intense fighting concentrated on the region since the beginning of the war in late February, with the last Ukrainian fighters defending a fierce onslaught from Russia.

Over 20,000 Mariupol civilians are believed to have died since war broke out, with thousands more fleeing the violence.

With Russia controlling most of Mariupol, the last Ukrainian holdout is the sprawling Azovstal steelworks.

Smoke rises from the grounds of the Azovstal steel plant in the city of Mariupol on April 29, 2022 (Photo by Andrey BORODULIN / AFP) (Photo by ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia could soon find itself in complete control of the city, but opposition forces are continuing to put up a dogged resistance.

But why is the city so important to both Ukraine and Russia - and what will happen if Russia takes control?

Here’s everything you need to know.

Mariupol is in the far south-eastern corner of Ukraine (Image: NationalWorld)

Why is Mariupol important to Ukraine and Russia?

While attention naturally drifted toward Ukraine’s capital Kyiv after Russian troops invaded on 24 February, Mariupol has proved to be one of the most fiercely contested cities.

There are many reasons for this, from the location’s strategtic importance to the symbolism in taking the city for both sides.

Location

Mariupol is situated on the southern coast of Ukraine, on the Sea of Azov.

One of the few port cities in the surrounding region, Mariupol is key to the import and export of goods to Ukraine, often being used prior to the war to transport coal and grain.

Mariupol is a key port city in Ukraine. (Credit: Getty Images)

While Russia has a reasonably firm grip over the Black Sea following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, nullifying Mariupol as a point of entry to Ukraine for food and weapons is a key reason for Moscow’s focus on the city.

Not only does the city act as a practical target, but Russia is also hoping to create a land corridor between the Donbas and Crimea. This is absolutely critical for Vladimir Putin, and if Russia achieves this the Kremlin can chalk it up as a ‘win’ ahead of its planned ‘Victory Day’ parade on 9 May.

Azovstal steelworks

The Azovstal steel plant has become the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in the city.

While most of Mariupol has falled to Russian troops, this complex, which is one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, is the last area to remain in Ukrainian hands.

As well as Ukrainian forces, there are also still a number of civilians sheltering there, who have been at the centre of evacuation attempts to the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia.

While almost 500 people have been evacuated so far, there are estimated to be about 200 civilians - including at least 20 children - still in bunkers under the steel plant as of Friday (6 May), and there are renewed attempts to get them to safety amid Russian attacks.

Footage shared on social media showed air strikes on the Mariupol steel plant (Photo: third party)

Russia is not trying to destroy the steel plant itself, recognising the power that holding the manufacturing facility could have in the war.

But the Ukrainian defence is making this a difficult task for Putin’s men.

Speaking to Sky News, former air vice-marshal Sean Bell said: “[Russia] wants to take over infrastructure it can use, but the Ukrainian response has been so dogged, it’s had to resort to the total bombardment of its enemy and beating them into submission.”

Strategy

From the Ukrainian point of view, keeping one hand on Mariupol is key to fighting back against the Russian eastern advance.

Putin previously announced that after failing to take Kyiv, forces would begin focusing on taking control of eastern Ukraine, pushing out to the Donbas.

With President Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces putting up an extremely strong defence in Mariupol, they have prevented Russian troops from advancing in the east and north.

Russian troops are preoccupied with capturing Mariupol in a longer-than-expected struggle, meaning that the battle-weary Russian army does not have the numbers yet to power ahead with Putin’s plans.

Civilians have been evacuated from Mariupol as fighting continues in the heavily contested Ukrainian city. (Credit: Getty Images)

War narrative

Mariupol, prior to the Russian invasion, was Ukraine’s tenth largest city with a population of around 430,000.

The formerly thriving city has been reduced to rubble in the past seven weeks of fighting and Zelensky knows that it is now a powerful example of Russian aggression in the battle for hearts and minds.

Around 90% of buildings in Mariupol have been destroyed amid fighting and chemical weapons have also been allegedly used.

Two Russian soldiers patrol the Mariupol drama theatre, which was hit by a Russian strike in March. (Credit: Getty Images)

Russian airstrikes on a Mariupol theatre and maternity hospital hit the headlines in early March, with hundreds of civilians killed.

However, Mariupol does play into the Russian “de-nazification” of Ukraine narrative, which the country touted as one of its main justifications for invading its neighbours.

Speaking about the invasion, Putin said that troops had moved in “to protect the people that are subjected to abuse, genocide from the Kiev regime” and to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”

The city is home to Ukrainian armed forces, and specifically the controversial Azov battalion, a far-right National Guard unit with strong ties to neo-Nazism.

As part of the wider Ukrainian resistance, the unit has been fighting on the frontline and has been key to Mariupol’s defence.

Symbolism

For both sides of the battle, the symbolism in either keeping or taking Mariupol is huge.

For Ukraine, it will solidify the strength of the armed forces which were projected to lose to Russia within a few days of the invasion.

Likewise, for Russia, taking control of Mariupol will be hugely symbolic. Putin’s aim is to create a ‘sphere of influence’ over former Soviet regions, and has spoken openly about the deep Russian cultural ties to Ukraine, specifically in the east and south.

What will happen if Russia takes Mariupol?

One of the key reasons Russia is hoping to take complete control of Mariupol in the coming days is the push towards the north and east of Ukraine.

If the city falls, this will be one of the biggest threats to Ukraine.

Russian forces will attempt to strengthen their grip on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of the country.

Due to Mariupol’s location, it also gives Russia a strategic base to push north to Dnipro.

While Putin has said that Russia will be focusing on capturing the east of the country, Mariupol also gives troops a corridor to Odesa, another strategic port city in the west.

This city would be the last Black Sea base for Ukraine, with Russia looking to dominate with its naval power in the region.

Russia will also be able to concentrate more troops - around 6,000 - to other areas of the war.

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