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That’s why Russia is after Mariupol – and why it may not be the change in the game it once was – the National

After weeks of bombings and allegations of tens of thousands of civilians killed, the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol appears on the verge of falling into Russian hands.

However, experts say the takeover of the city, while achieving a strategic goal, is now much more about giving Russian President Vladimir Putin something significant to show about an invasion that has so far failed to achieve its main goals.

“Putin is desperate for victory,” said the retired Canadian major general. Dennis Thompson, now a Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Global Affairs.

“The pressure is to give him victory somewhere and it seems that Mariupol is the place where he will get it, even if it leads to the complete destruction of the city.

Read more: More than 1,000 Ukrainian Marines surrender in Mariupol, Russia claims

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Russia said Wednesday that more than 1,000 Ukrainian Marines, among the last defenders hiding in the city’s Azovstal industrial district, have surrendered, although Ukraine has not confirmed this.

Mariupol has been reduced to “ashes”, according to Ukrainian authorities. Satellite images and photographs taken on the ground show that most of the infrastructure has been destroyed by constant Russian shelling and rocket attacks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Wednesday that Russia was stepping up efforts south and east, suggesting Mariupol remains a key target after nearly seven weeks of fighting.

View of western Mariupol overlooking port facilities and burning buildings on April 12, 2022. Satellite image © 2022 Maxar Technologies

Why does Russia want Mariupol?

Mariupol, home to more than 400,000 people before the war, is Ukraine’s largest city on the Sea of ​​Azov and the main port serving the industries and agriculture of eastern Ukraine. Here are some of the largest metal plants in Ukraine.

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It was also the largest city still held by Ukrainian authorities in the two eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as Donbass, where pro-Russian separatists have spent years fighting for control. Putin declared these provinces independent just days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24.

The conquest of Mariupol will give Russia full control over the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov, as well as a secure land bridge connecting mainland Russia and pro-Russian separatist territory to the east with the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow captured and annexed in 2014.

This bridge will unite Russian forces along two of the main axes of the invasion and release them to join an expected new offensive against major Ukrainian forces in the east – potentially allowing the Russians to attack from two directions.

Thompson says Russia already has a connection between the mainland and the easternmost point of Crimea. Although it allows Russian forces to approach from the south, this bridge is longer and less secure than the one between Russia and Mariupol.

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The takeover of the city now – after blocking Ukrainians’ access to the port of Mariupol and occupying the area for weeks – would be largely symbolic, he added.

“This is definitely related to the fact that Putin has a checklist that he can show his people and say: look what we have achieved,” he said.

“It may still be useful for the Russians, but it is not crucial to Ukraine’s operation at the moment, although that has not stopped them from fighting for control.”

2:22 Exhausted refugees from Mariupol, Melitopol share a painful journey while arriving in Zaporozhye, Ukraine Exhausted refugees from Mariupol, Melitopol share a painful journey while arriving in Zaporozhye, Ukraine – April 2, 2022

Mariupol is the site of some of the worst atrocities documented since the invasion began, including the bombing of a maternity and children’s hospital and a theater used to shelter women and children.

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The city’s mayor estimates that more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. More than 100,000 residents remain in the city, but they have been cut off by supplies, aid and even basic utilities such as water and heat.

Read more: 21,000 Mariupol civilians have died since the start of the Russian invasion, the mayor said

Daily attempts to send aid convoys and evacuate civilians failed during the siege, with Ukraine accusing Russia of looting shipments and refusing to let buses through the blockade. Moscow has said Ukraine is to blame for the non-compliance with the ceasefire.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that in addition to the mass surrenders of soldiers from Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, the port of Mariupol is entirely under Russian control.

This came a day after intense fighting was reported at Ilyich’s metal plant in the northern part of the city, which Russia has since taken control of.

A post on the brigade’s Facebook page on Monday said the unit was preparing for a final battle in Mariupol that would result in death or capture as its troops ran out of ammunition.

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Some Ukrainian officials then said the publication could be fake. Presidential adviser Mikhail Podoliak wrote on Twitter that the city’s defenders have no provisions, but “are fighting under the bombs every meter of the city.”

# Mariupol. Death came here under her banner. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed. 90% of the buildings were destroyed. 🇺🇦 Defenders are surrounded. From the very beginning, we ask our partners for a chance – for tanks and planes. The world is silent and watching genocide online.

– Michael Podolyak (@Podolyak_M) April 11, 2022

Thompson says it is possible that Mariupol will fall in the coming days, “depending on how determined the Russians are to find the other elements” in the city.

If that happens, he says Ukraine may try to retake the city, but may have to hold on until Russian forces are pushed elsewhere.

“This should be a long-term goal, because the weapons that Ukraine has are mostly defensive,” he said. “They will need other resources if they have to go on the offensive.

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“(The rest of the civilians) are also considerations, because, of course, the Russians had no remorse and use them as human shields.

Moscow has denied targeting civilians and blamed Ukraine for their deaths, accusing Kyiv of organizing events such as the attacks on a hospital and theater in Mariupol.

– with files from Reuters and the Associated Press

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.