Russian-Backed Militants Have This City in Their Sights
Mariupol would give Russia an overland supply route to Crimea
I met Alina Podpovetnaya in a park in downtown Mariupol. There’s a war going on to the east of this Ukrainian port city, and I wanted to know what she thought of the situation.
“It’s fucking crazy,” Podpovetnaya said.
An 18-year-old student at Zaproskie University, Podpovetnaya said she fears the Russian military will attack her hometown in order to create a corridor from Russia to Crimea.
The front line is about 10–15 kilometers to the east — and everyone here is acutely aware of that fact.
“The Russians are taking our east and we have to defend our borders,” Podpovetnaya said.
Some of her university friends have joined the fight, including her boyfriend who serves with Ukrainian forces near the Lugansk People’s Republic — a Russian-backed enclave to the northeast.
“I worry about him,” she said while fiddling with her phone. He repeatedly called her during our interview. “I’m happy when he has his phone turned on.”
She said that many of his friends have died in battle, but their deaths are not reported in the media. More than 1,600 Ukrainian soldiers have died since the conflict began.
The city’s billboards are illustrative of the war that’s come so close. “Mariupol, Ukraine!” declared one patriotic billboard.
“Dignity, will and victory!” stated another billboard depicting a stern-looking Ukrainian soldier. “Mobilize — defend our most precious [nation]!”
The billboard identified the soldier as a “Cyborg, nickname Sapper, 33 years old.” Ukrainian soldiers are known as Cyborgs for their supposedly superhuman strength.
In January and February, the Donetsk People’s Republic launched an offensive toward Mariupol. The DPR shelled the city with long-range Grad rocket fire.
Ukrainian troops repelled the assault — at a cost. On Jan. 29, one of the heaviest separatist barrages killed 29 people in the city.
Vlaeria Bondarenko — a 20-year-old student — lost a friend in the attacks. She expects the war to continue for at least three more years. “When Putin leaves power, Crimea will come back to Ukraine and so will the DPR and LPR. But that’s impossible,” Bondarenko said with a laugh.
High school teacher Vasile Magar, 27, echoed these sentiments.
“Mariupol is not as valuable to Russia as it is to Ukraine,” Magar said. “So Ukraine will fight very hard [to keep it]. We have metal production factories, a good seaport. Mariupol is the best city. Ukraine would lose a lot.”
But even if the city isn’t as important to the separatists as it is to Ukraine, losing it would still be a major symbolic and strategic blow.
Ukraine would lose its largest port on the Azov Sea. The separatists could also use the city as a base for advancing further along the coast. Eventually, they could establish a land bridge with Russian-controlled Crimea.
The war is putting pressure on Mariupol. With the Ukrainian hryvnia — the standard currency — weak, food costs nearly three times as much as before the war. Magar said the products that are available are generally cheaper and inferior.
“It’s very hard,” he said. “The people have no money to live, but they must survive somehow.”
Magar said wartime life has left people growing “more and more disappointed with the government,” he said.
He expects people to eventually “rise up” against the politicians in Kiev. “I love my country but I don’t respect the government or the separatists,” he said. “I’m neutral.”
He didn’t say anything unusual here. Many Mariupol residents are willing to fight — and die — to keep their city Ukrainian, but that doesn’t automatically make them fans of their own government.
“It’s like we’re in the medieval ages,” Magar said. “Like other Western countries, we have a constitution and laws, but no one wants to follow them.”
If residents are critical of their government, they’re even harsher when it comes to Russia.
“Before, Russia was cool for us, but now we think the Russian government is shit,” Nina Kurkina, a 55-year-old Mariupol resident, said. “It was quiet and peaceful. When the Russian ‘saviors’ came, it all changed.”
Even if the Russians and separatists attempt to take Mariupol, Nikolai Chabanuk — a 65-year-old retiree — isn’t worried. “I’m not afraid because I’m a strong man,” Chabanuk said. “Like Soviet steel.”
Chabanuk served in the Ukrainian army along the border with Russia before retiring. Today, he’s more concerned about his pension dropping because of the war.
“Physically, the war hasn’t affected me,” he said. “But mentally, it’s been very hard.”
At a hospital on the outskirts of Mariupol, dozens of Ukrainian soldiers received basic medical care before heading back to the front lines. Most of them had minor sicknesses and injuries, such as flu and scratches. One soldier was in a wheelchair.
A soldier named Viktor, who refused to give his last name for security reasons, fell and injured his leg during a firefight. Serving in the all-volunteer Azov Battalion, the 54-year-old man has fought in nearby Shyrokyne — the true hot spot of the war in Ukraine.
“It’s my country,” he said. “I have to defend my country. It’s my motherland.
I was born here and I have to defend it.”
Anton “Chechen” Zaharchenko also said he came to Mariupol to defend his country. A 23-year-old member of the National Guard, he was at the heart of the Euromaidan movement in Kiev, which sparked the conflict last year.
But at the time, he served on the side of then-Pres. Viktor Yanukovych. “I had my orders,” Zaharchenko said.
Originally from central Ukraine, he now defends a checkpoint which comes under regular attack by DPR mortar and small arms fire. “We’re not going to give up Mariupol,” he said. “Mariupol will stay with Ukraine. I think [this war] is going to end soon.”
He said the rebels have been “zombied” by Russian television into believing that the Ukrainian military is full of Nazis and fascists. Meanwhile, he said that DPR soldiers “have come on our lands to make a mess and kill our people.”
“They are terrorists and criminals. They need to be killed,” Zaharchenko said.
At an intersection in the city, a police officer wearing body armor kept watch. An armored Ukrainian medical carrier drove down the street.
A 25-year-old Ukrainian marine known by his nom de guerre “Slavic” refused to share his full name. He said his compatriots who joined the separatist side have committed “treason.”
“They sold their own country for a few Russian rubles,” Slavic said. “They turned on their own people and killed their own people.”
Slavic took part in the Euromaidan movement, too, taking up a shield and a bat while also preparing Molotov cocktails to fight against the former president.
Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014, where he now lives in exile. Ukraine elected a new president, Petro Poreshenko. But Slavic expects Ukrainians will soon demand a new president.
“The government has been useless at this time,” Slavic said. “It hasn’t changed anything. Poroshenko needs to go out. He promised a lot and hasn’t done anything.”
“They sell our country piece by piece. Sometimes you wonder —
what the hell are we fighting for?”