Last week, as the “ceasefire” (or mild de-escalation) in eastern Ukraine crumbled into dust, so too did the Ukrainian military’s grasp of the highly contested Donetsk Airport, which had become an intense battlefield during the war and a symbol of national resistance against armed Russian interference in the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and affairs.
Today the conflict shifted southward to the Donetsk oblast’s second-largest city, Mariupol, the government’s temporary oblast capital, while the city of Donetsk itself remains in rebel hands. Donetsk rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko reportedly told Russia’s Interfax news agency “We have started an offensive on Mariupol.”
Mariupol falling to “separatist” forces now could potentially change the balance of the war, which had slowly been tipping toward the Ukrainian nationalist side until the recent setback at the Donetsk airport. Ukrainian military control of Mariupol until now has been a major obstacle to unification of separatist zones and Russian-occupied Crimea, although the agricultural/industrial-centered Zaporizhia Oblast (and a corner of the Kherson Oblast) would also need to be crossed before achieving unification.
Such a development would (by cutting Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov) link Russia by land all the way to Russian-occupied Crimea in a “corridor” or “land bridge,” using the European route E58 highway (see second map below) and covering much of the coastal edge of the territory known in the Imperial Russian period as Novorossiya or “New Russia.”
That label, in fact, has been widely adopted by Russian-speaking separatists to refer collectively to the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine. The historic term resurfaced in an April 17, 2014 televised townhall-style forum held in Russia by President Vladimir Putin.
A land bridge between Crimea (annexed last year by Russia) and the Russian mainland would, by many estimates, dramatically reduce the cost to Russia of holding Crimea while providing services (including electricity, currently purchased from Ukraine!), food, and other vital goods. Currently those only reach Crimea by ferry from a relatively remote corner of Russia, and an actual bridge — which is going to be very expensive — is not expected to open for several more years (if it ever starts being built).
Previously, back in May, Ukrainian ultra-billionaire Rinat Akhmetov — now slipped to 117 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people — ejected local separatists from the government buildings they were “occupying” in Mariupol, and sent his own private workers to start cleaning up so local public functions could resume. He took a firm, public stance against independence or annexation to Russia. As a result, that port city on the Sea of Azov coast, was relatively removed from the center of the clashes between separatists and Ukrainian troops sent by Kiev, until late summer.
It has been under threat since the August 27, 2014 invasion of Novoazovsk by at least a thousand unmarked Russian Federation troops and heavy armor vehicles. The highway between the two nearby cities became a contested area until the de-escalation during the “ceasefire” period.
Today, however, the Washington Post reports the Mariupol itself was hit by shelling shortly before the Donetsk rebel commander Zakharchenko’s announcement of the Mariupol offensive:
Zakharchenko later added that the rebels’ intention was to suppress Ukrainian troops to the east of the city, but not to storm Mariupol.
Ukrainian officials had earlier accused pro-Russian rebels of launching a deadly shelling Saturday against Mariupol. The shelling killed 27 civilians and wounded 99, Andrey Fedai of the Mariupol City Council posted on his Facebook page.
Pro-Kiev forces in Mariupol said Saturday on its VKontake page that the shelling had come from rebel-held territory, while Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said that “at least three Grad systems” — referring to rocket-launchers — were used in the shelling.
As usual, the separatist forces blamed the Ukrainian military for the shelling as a self-inflicted act to provoke public opposition to the separatist cause — and denied all claims that it was attacking the city at all.
The US and Ukrainian governments predicted a wider operational objective, implying a Crimea corridor though not stating it explicitly:
“Today’s indiscriminate shelling of Mariupol [is] part of an apparently Russian-backed general offensive in complete violation of Minsk agreements,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted Saturday morning.
The recent fighting would appear to signal the end of the de-escalation achieved by the Minsk agreements as fighting ramped up to a level of violence not seen since the period before the agreements:
The United Nations estimated Friday that almost 5,100 people have died in Ukraine since the fighting began last April — 262 in the past nine days before the updated figure was published, making it the deadliest period since this summer, before the Minsk cease-fire agreement was signed.