Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ukraine: Mariupol Prepares as Russians Advance

Mood of resistance contrasts with apathy seen across much of the east.
  • Rally in Mariupol, August 28, 2014. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
    Rally in Mariupol, August 28, 2014. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
  • Rally in Mariupol, August 28, 2014. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
    Rally in Mariupol, August 28, 2014. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
  • Rally in Mariupol, August 28, 2014. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
    Rally in Mariupol, August 28, 2014. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)

The flow of civilians leaving Mariupol has thinned out since August 25-26, when early reports of an armoured column advancing from the Russian border sowed panic in the city.

According to those reports, camouflaged troops and 50 armoured vehicles with their numbers painted out arrived in the town of Markovo and raised the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

“They are stationed there so that no one can open fire on them since it’s a populated area,” a Ukrainian army source told me at that point. “No one knows where they will strike – whether they will attack our rear defences at Ilovaysk, march on Mariupol, or go back into Russia and cross the border at some other point. It’s a new factor, a new challenge from Putin.”

In Mariupol, people began panic-buying. Petrol and diesel ran out at filling stations by the end of the day, long queues formed at cash machines and food disappeared from shop shelves.

After the August 26 talks between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, the forces based at Markovo started moving off. Some moved up to Ilovaysk, and others attacked Novoazovsk and Starobeshevo.

With the force advancing to 20 kilometres from Mariupol, Ukrainian forces began preparing to defend this key port city. The Ukrainians have men but few tanks or other heavy weapons in the city.

“They [Russian forces] currently have over 100 tanks in Novoazovsk. That’s an awful lot,” Ukrainian member of parliament Yegor Firsov told me. “Ukraine entered this war in possession of just 300 tanks, taken out of mothballs and readied for battle. It isn’t clear why Russia is focusing such a mighty armoured force here but we will be ready for it.”

Mariupol’s strategic value lies in its access to the Black Sea and its airport.

“Putin could throw everything he’s got at it and the separatists would suddenly acquire an air force and naval fleet complete with trained crews,” Firsov said. “Mariupol must not be surrendered.”

I met Firsov at a rally in the city centre on August 28. People went along to denounce Putin, to sign up for self-defence units and to collect money to buy medication for wounded Ukrainian soldiers.

The following day, Friday, many city residents went out to dig trenches for the National Guard units deployed on the outskirts. Mayor Yury Khotlubey joined them, spade in hand. Perhaps he was trying to win back some favour. At the previous day’s rally, he had been whistled at – he is unpopular for having cooperated with the pro-Moscow separatists when they were in the city this summer.

The spirit of resistance in Mariupol, and the practical steps civilians are taking to defend themselves, are a first for the conflict in east Ukraine. In other places like Donetsk, Makeyevka and Snezhnoe, large numbers of apolitical people simply looked on as separatist forces moved in, taking the view that at least there would be some kind of administration, even if it was not much good. Some older people, nostalgic for the Soviet era, hoped that Putin would start paying them higher pensions, while others noted how the Crimean takeover had taken place without major bloodshed.

In Mariupol, however, most people now seem to have realised that the Donetsk People’s Republic brings war, chaos, the collapse of commerce and employment, and foreign tanks on the streets. People here are not waiting expectantly for Putin.  

Dmitry Durnev is editor-in-chief of the MK-Donbass newspaper in Donetsk.