- - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MARIUPOL, Ukraine — In this city under siege, where many argue the fate of Ukraine rests, citizens are defiant.

“Vladimir Putin, if you can hear me, you’re a dead man,” said Mariupol resident Vladimir Ivanovich, calling out Russia’s president, who is accused of sending thousands of troops into Ukraine to help separatists who have set up breakaway republics in eastern provinces.

“The Kremlin is not interested in peace talks,” Mr. Ivanovich said. “How can we talk with these killers? Now they are trying to blackmail us with these deaths.”

Mr. Ivanovich was referring to the 30 people killed Saturday by rocket strikes in Mariupol, a Ukrainian-held city that stands between the Russian border and Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow last year. The rockets also injured about 100 people in markets, homes and schools in the city.

The attack on Mariupol signaled the end of the cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and pro-Russia rebels in September and highlighted the strategic importance of the Azov Sea port city in Kiev’s resistance to Moscow’s aggression.

On Saturday, Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the pro-Russia separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, announced that his troops would launch an offensive into Ukrainian territory. A day earlier, he and other rebels pulled out of peace talks with Western leaders.

Analysts say Russia could be seeking to take Mariupol to gain an overland route to Crimea or to threaten the city to force Ukrainian leaders in Kiev to accept a truce beneficial to Moscow’s interests. A steel-producing center of about 500,000 people, Mariupol is a crucial export hub that plays a key role in Ukraine’s economy.

Maximilian Hess, Europe and former Soviet Union analyst at the London-based risk analysis group AKE, said the city is the linchpin to controlling eastern Ukraine.

“For Ukraine, it is the seat of their capital in exile for Donetsk province — the Ukrainian administration is located there,” said Mr. Hess. “It is very important for the pro-Russian or Russian-backed forces for the same reason.

“Capturing Mariupol would not only help them in securing their southern flank for the regions that they already control, but Mariupol is the last significant settlement on that coast within Donetsk province.”

In recent months, Ukraine had bolstered Mariupol’s defenses. Now the city is girding for a potential assault as machine gun and artillery fire sporadically break out on its outskirts and pro-Russia separatists push Ukrainian government forces west in other parts of the country.

“Military units are being strengthened around Mariupol,” said Dmitro Choli, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces. “The Ukrainian army has sufficient sea and land forces in order to repel an enemy attack.”

Mariupol Police Chief Vyacheslav Abroskin said he has full confidence in his officers.

“The Mariupol police are at full readiness in order to deal with any continuous separatist threat,” Chief Abroskin said. “The police are guarding damaged residential and commercial property that belongs to the people of the city. There is the constant threat of a follow-up strike in the residential area.”

Like other Mariupol residents, the police chief also expressed disgust over the rocket attack. “Why are we not calling this a terrorist act?” he said. “What would you call an act when the civilian population is being killed?”

Russian authorities said Ukrainian troops accidentally fired the rockets. That incensed Mariupol residents like Mr. Ivanovich even more.

The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe conducted a crater analysis and concluded that the rockets came from rebel-held territory. The separatists have denied the claims.

“How dare you think that it’s the Ukrainian army,” said Mr. Ivanovich, bristling at the suggestion that government troops killed Ukrainian citizens. “There would be no Mariupol without them.”

But he and his neighbors might be putting too much stock in their defenses.

“I was in Mariupol myself in December for a few days, and from my personal experiences there, I don’t believe that a real sustained Russian attack could be resisted in the long run,” said Mr. Hess, the analyst. “While there are significant Ukrainian checkpoints outside the city and significant fortifications within the city, much of the patrolling is still done by the steel workers from the two steel factories.”

Meanwhile, in the city’s hospital, surgeon Ilya Sayenko was treating those wounded in Saturday’s rocket attack. The hospitals are bracing for more.

“The traumas are all shrapnel-related,” Dr. Sayenko said. “There was a serious case of a woman with severe lower-limb injuries. Unfortunately, we had to amputate both her legs.”

Anna Vasilievna, a hospital administrator, said she was proud of how local residents turned out in droves to donate blood for the injured and for those who might suffer in the future. The city is prepared for more fighting if necessary, she said.

“At the moment, we’ve informed the residents that we have a sufficient amount of blood reserves to supply the city,” Ms. Vasilievna said. “We’ve had a large number of first-time donors. On average, we have 40 donors a day. Today, we’ve already had 80.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide