The Russian operation to take the port city of Mariupol is drawing to a successful conclusion. “Success” has to be understood today in a qualified sense, since large parts of the city now lie in ruins and as many as 4,000 civilians may have been killed in the fighting, largely victims of trigger happy Ukrainian ultra-nationalists. The Azov battalion soldiers and other irregulars holding the city from fortified positions in residential communities of this city of 460,000 shot wantonly at those who tried to escape from the basements of apartment houses to fetch water or who dared attempt to join the humanitarian corridors and exit the city. The civilian population was held hostage and constituted a “human shield.” They protected the Ukrainian forces from the full fury of Russian artillery and precision air strikes, which otherwise would have been deployed.
All of the fighting over Mariupol has gotten very little coverage in the Western media. All that we heard about was the difficulty in establishing humanitarian corridors and interviews with the few terrorized civilians who managed to get out to the West. To be fair, the situation on the ground in Mariupol has been reported only partially by the Russians because it has been very much a work in progress that they kept under rules of secrecy in line with their entire ‘special military operation.’
Now that the capture of Mariupol is in its final phase, some information of value has been published in alternative Russian media and I propose to present that here to give readers a sense of how this war is being prosecuted and why. Main source: https://www.9111.ru/questions/7777777771838727/
In effect, most of the city proper has been taken by the Russian army and Donetsk militias, with significant assistance from a battalion of Chechens headed by their leader Kadyrov. As the routes out of the city heading east were freed and as the snipers and other Azov forces were pushed back to provide some level of safety in the streets, large numbers of civilians have left the city in the past week. It is estimated that the civilian population remaining in Mariupol at present is about one third what it was at the start of the conflict.
The Azov fighters, other irregulars and Ukrainian army forces numbered about 4,000 at the start and have been reduced due to casualties. They include among them “foreign mercenaries” as the Russians have said for some time. Now from intercepted phone conversations of these belligerents, it appears that among the foreigners are NATO instructors. This means that the proxy war between Russia and the USA/NATO begins to approximate a direct confrontation, contradicting the public pronouncements coming from the Biden administration. Should the Russians succeed in taking these NATO instructors alive, which is one of their priority tasks, the next sessions of the UN Security Council could be very tense.
To be sure, the 4,000 enemy forces mentioned above were only those within the city. Ukrainian forces numbering six times more were positioned to the west of the city at the start of hostilities. Presumably they have been pushed back to the West.
As we have known for a week or so, the remaining Azov and other Ukrainian forces have retreated from the city proper to two locations on the outskirts of Mariupol: the port and the Azovstal industrial territory. The Russians have now entirely encircled both.
The port runs for about 3 kilometers along the sea and reaches inland about 300 meters. It is from here that in the past week, the Azov group tried to send out by helicopter a dozen or more of its top officers. The helicopter was shot down by the Russians, killing all aboard. A relief helicopter also was destroyed by the Russians, but here one Ukrainian survived and he was interrogated about the failed operation.
The port is now being cleared of enemy forces, with the Donbas militia taking the lead.
The Azovstal industrial complex is a much tougher nut to crack. It consists of two steel works. Their specific feature is underground levels going down as much as six to eight stories, where the enemy has to be flushed out by siege methods not by artillery barrage or bombing. As many as 3,000 nationalists and Ukrainian army soldiers may be there. The main task for the Russians is to watch all entrances and exits to the underground.
The Russians are not bombing for two reasons:
First, there is no sense in destroying the infrastructure above the ground level if the enemy is holed up below. Moreover, there are some residential buildings in the vicinity.
Second, if you bomb and bury the nationalists underground, then there will be no witnesses to bring to court to talk about the atrocities which these people have committed in the Donbas. And there may well be in these underground bunkers still more biological laboratories which were till now very carefully kept out of view. The Russians want to get their hands on proof.
Whatever the level of destruction may be, the pending Russian victory over Ukrainian forces in Mariupol is anything but Pyrrhic. It is a full-blooded victory with great strategic importance insofar as it gives the Russians full control of the Azov Sea littoral. It seals the land bridge connecting the Russian Federation mainland with Crimea. It also is a key piece in ensuring water supplies to Crimea, which had been cut off by Ukraine in order to inflict maximum pain on Russian Crimea. With water now flowing once again from the Dnieper, there is a solid basis for resuming farming on Crimea in its traditional levels and also to support tourist inflows, a key source of income for the region. Add to that the likelihood that with some time and investment, Mariupol will reassume its important economic role as seaport and industrial town.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022
Postscript, 21 May 2022 In the past week approximately 500 civilians, mostly women, children and pensioners were released from the Azovstal complex via a humanitarian corridor supervised by international organizations and were permitted to move on east or west as they wished. In the past three days nearly 2,500 Azov fighters in the steelworks raised the white flag and surrendered to Russian authorities. Among them were 100 seriously wounded or ill soldiers who were taken to medical facilities for care while remaining in Russian custody. In short, there has been a total capitulation by the most determined and ‘heroic’ fighters on the Ukrainian side, including foreign mercenaries. Kiev has put a brave face on this defeat, calling it an “evacuation” and insisting that the fighters had successfully completed the mission assigned to them, which was to pin down large numbers of Russian troops for three weeks. The Russians do not mince words: they speak of their victory setting the stage for much larger surrender of Ukrainian troops in the Donbas as they close several ‘cauldrons’ and crush the resistance of the enemy in foritifed concrete bunkers by application of heavy artillery. During the coming weeks, the Russians will be conducting interrogations of all the POWs to separate out the neo-Nazi ringleaders whom they intend to bring to trial for war crimes against the civilian population of Donbas over the past eight years. Those tried in Russian courts will face sentences of up to 25 years imprisonment. Those tried in Donbas courts will face the death penalty. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already appealed to Moscow “to show mercy” to British warriors who are among the captives. Such requests may soon turn to demands as Western governments and media raise the alarm over the trials in due course.