Deep Dive: Mariupol’, Putin’s Novorossiya, and Odessa
Written by Val Stutz. Edited by: Clary Estes
Until one month ago, few people had ever heard of Mariupol’. However, the port city residing on the banks of the Sea of Azov is now an all too familiar reminder of the cost of the Russian invasion. Mariupol’ has been razed to the ground by repeated attacks and has seen one of the most acute humanitarian crises in Europe since World War II. The violence there now seems to be spreading west to Odessa, which given a variety of Putin’s statements historically, is not surprising.
As the extent of the devastation in the northern suburbs of Bucha near Kyiv left in the wake of Russian retreat, eyes are turning south as Russian forces regroup, refocus, and continue their bombardment of Ukraine.
Why has Mariupol’ been the focus of such attacks? And what does that mean for the invasion on the southern front? In the south, Mariupol’ is one city at the mercy of Putin’s dream of a Novorossiya, The New Russia. Should Putin find success in the south, Mariupol’ will be far from the last city to get hit and as reports come out of Odessa April 4th, optimism for the region wanes. In this article, we discuss Putin’s use of the Leningrad Strategy, his New Russia vision, as well the later humanitarian crisis that Russia’s southern trajectory would instigate.
Russia’s Leningrad Strategy
Since the initial days of the Russian invasion, Mariupol’ has suffered among the most of any major Ukrainian city. It continues to face intense shelling by Russian artillery, with many areas being completely destroyed across the city. Since becoming fully surrounded by Russian ground forces, Mariupol’ has been cut off from the rest of the country. The city currently lacks water, electricity in most areas, and is suffering severe food shortages. Over 100,000 civilians remain trapped, hiding in bomb shelters across the city and are at severe risk of hunger, dehydration, and illness.
In a discussion with a young man named Viktor, an engineer and World War II historian from Dnipro, he described the chaos and destruction of Mariupol’ as being reminiscent of the siege of Leningrad, in which German forces surrounded the city and cut off supply lines, resulting in the death of over a million civilians and Red Army soldiers. This strategy of surrounding a city and starving out the population has proven to be a go to strategy for Russian forces time and time again during this invasion as can be seen via various maps that show Russia’s movements in the country. Sumi, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and even Kyiv, among others have all seen the use of this strategy; it is the weaponization of a country's population against itself.
In recent decades, this tactic has been seen in other wars Russia was engaged in, including the Chechen Wars when the city of Grozny was destroyed, along with Aleppo in Syria. The Russian siege has made it impossible for humanitarian aid to reach the civilians of Mariupol’, with relief organizations calling for both sides to establish safe passage through humanitarian corridors. These green corridors have however, been an equally problematic point of contention during the invasion and rarely successful.
Reports of Russian forces violating safety guarantees and indiscriminately attacking civilian locations continue to emerge. Personal accounts of those civilians trapped in Mariupol’ express an overwhelming sense of terror and despair. While the tragedy of Mariupol’ has been well documented since the beginning of the war, the international community must understand the significance of this once peaceful city and why the Russians have launched such a vicious assault on it and its civilian population.
Four Reasons Putin wants Mariupol’
The city is situated on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov, which is connected to the Black Sea by the narrow Strait of Kerch, and is sometimes regarded as a northern extension of the Black Sea. Mariupol’ is a significant port city within Ukraine. Prior to the invasion, Mariupol’ had a population of over 400,000 people, and was the tenth largest city in the country and the second largest city in the Donetsk region.
Due to the geographic significance of Mariupol’, the city has been a key location of interest to Russian forces since the very beginning in 2014. In the initial stages of the war in Donbas, pro-Russian forces captured Mariuopol, and after a brief battle, Ukrainian forces managed to restore government control of the city, with minor skirmishes between the opposing forces taking place in the outskirts of the city ever since.
According to a report from BBC News, Mariupol’ is significant to the Russian military for four reasons. First of all, by capturing Mariupol’, the Russian military will be able to establish a land corridor between Donbas and Crimea. The city is the only geographic obstacle that is preventing Russian troops advancing from the eastern border from linking up with Russian forces being deployed from the Crimean peninsula.
Secondly, as a major port city, seizing Mariupol’ would allow the Russian forces to strangle Ukraine’s economy. It is the largest port in the Azov Sea region, and a key hub for Ukraine’s exports such as steel, coal, and corn.
Thirdly, capturing the city presents a strong propaganda opportunity for the Russian government. Mariupol’ is the home base of a Ukrainian militia known as the Azov Battalion, which is notorious for including members of far-right extremist groups, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Although these extremists only make up a tiny fraction of Ukrainian forces, this militia has been a useful, albeit ironic, propaganda tool for Moscow, and justifies the Russian government’s claims of “denazification.”
Lastly, the capture of Mariupol’ would be a major morale boost for Russia’s military and government. A Russian victory in Mariupol’ would allow the Kremlin to show the public through state-run media that Russian goals were being achieved and that progress was being made. If the Ukrainian government loses Mariupol’, then the immense destruction and human suffering within the city would all be in vain from the perspective of the Ukrainians.
It is worth noting that for Vladimir Putin, there is historical significance to seizing Mariupol’ and other Ukrainian territories along the Black Sea. He considers Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline as belonging to a greater region known as Novorossiya, or The New Russia, “a large swath of territory conquered by Imperial Russia during the 18th century from a declining Ottoman Empire. This historic Novorossiya covered roughly a third of what is now Ukraine (including Crimea).”
This technique of arguing Russian entitlement over a particular territory is hardly new and has been used by Putin time and time again over multiple regions. Putin’s goals are to wrench these territories out of Kyiv’s hands and put them under Russian control or create a nominally independent Federation of Novorossiya.
Steps towards Odessa
If Mariupol’ falls, Russia could have control of over 80% of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline, which would not only be detrimental to Ukraine’s economy, but also allow Russian forces to regroup more easily and establish more reliable supply lines for the Black Sea and Ukraine’s eastern border. This in turn would allow the Russian military to advance further into Ukrainian territory and launch new sieges on other cities such as Zaporizhiya, Dnipro, and Odessa. In short, taking Mariupol’ is step one in a multi-step progression west.
Odessa in particular is a high priority for the Russian military. As Ukraine’s third largest city and the largest port in the country, an all-out assault on Odessa would decimate Ukraine’s economy, and if Russia were to seize control of this city, then Ukraine would be completely cut off from the Black Sea. If Russia takes Odessa however, Europe will find Putin knocking on ever closer EU doors. It could also be looking down the barrel of a second humanitarian and refugee crisis in the continent.
Optimism for Odessa had persisted until last week in Ukraine, as well as neighboring Moldova, which has been both watching the conflict in rapt attention, as well as providing some of the greatest aid for refugees. President Zelinskyy’s advisor, Aleksey Arestovich, had previously said, “Odessa is almost completely safe.”
Yet, as reported by the Ukrainian defense ministry, “This morning, high-precision sea and air-based missiles destroyed an oil refinery and three storage facilities for fuel and lubricants near the city of Odessa, from which fuel was supplied to a group of Ukrainian troops in the direction of Mykolaiv.”
Zelinskyy has now said, “The global security architect has failed. The peace process will not be the result of any decisions of the enemies somewhere in Moscow. We should not have empty hopes that they will simply leave our land. We can only fight for peace. We can get in hard battles, and simultaneously in negotiations, and simultaneously in daily vigorous work.”
It would seem that while Russia retreats and regroups in the north it is now refocusing in the south. Yet, Odessa itself knew to prepare for an attack.
As David Smith discussed in his Moldova Matters blog, “This week it was announced that billboards across Odessa and the surrounding highways are being taken down and turned into hedgehogs and barricades. Road signs across Ukraine are also being removed in order to confuse invading forces. Tragically, 2 people drove a private vehicle onto a mined beach in Odessa ignoring the warning signs. Their car was blown up and one person died. Colonel Vladislav Nazarov, officer of the operational command "South" warned residents of the following: ‘The coast of the Black Sea is not a place of rest, but a probable springboard for the landing of enemy troops. Don't put yourself in danger.’"
Do Not Forget Moldova
The threat of a Russian advance further down the Black Sea coast has nonetheless stoked fear and anxiety within the Republic of Moldova, a landlocked country neighboring Ukraine on its south, east, and northern side. Ignoring Moldova has been an all too common pastime in Europe for decades, for multiple reasons, this needs to stop now. According to a report from Foreign Policy, Moldovans worry that Putin would come for them next if Russia manages to secure a victory in Ukraine.
As a former Soviet republic, Moldova is no stranger to Russian (and, of course, Soviet) aggression. Shortly after Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union, the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova’s east, which maintained a pro-Russian sentiment and loyalty to the Kremlin, engaged in a brief war in 1992 with the newly-independent government of Moldova.
A ceasefire agreement was established, however the conflict itself was never resolved. Following the Transnistria War, Russia has maintained a military presence within the breakaway republic, with its forces working under the questionable designation of a “peacekeeping force.” In addition to having a force of 1,300 troops stationed within Transnistria, Moscow also provides the small territory with subsidies and grants Russian passports to Transnistrian citizens.
With Odessa to the south and Transnistria to the east, should Russia successfully make across the Black Sea border region of Ukraine, they could in no uncertain terms enter and take Moldova with few problems should they want to.
There have been fears that Russian troops stationed in Transnistria could be mobilized and used to reinforce Russian forces in Odessa, or be sent directly into the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. Fears of a Russian invasion of Moldova grew following a presentation from Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, when he showed a map to his security council that implied that Transnistria played a part in Russia’s invasion plans. When it comes to Transnistria, Russia has the front door to Moldova all but opened for them.
Yet, there are equally reasonable reports (which we will not yet delve into in this article) that Transnistria prefers to not be mobilized and in fact would be a tactically poor move anyway. The only thing that is sure is that predicting Russian plans gets more and more difficult as this invasion continues.
“If Russia bombs Odessa, you can guarantee that half of the Moldova population will leave.” A Moldovan business owner, Vlad said last week. He has been working diligently on the refugee relief effort since the start of the invasion. Indeed, just about every Moldova in Chisinau we have talked to in our reporting has said that they have a go-bag ready should Odessa get attacked. “I will leave too.” Vlad goes on to say, “There is no way I want to be here if the Russians enter the country.” We are watching the moves of Moldovans this week as things in Odessa progress.
“One out of every four Moldovans now has Romanian citizenship.” Much like Ukraine, families between Moldova and Romania are intermixed and crossing country lines to visit, work, live, or own property. But it is important to remember that Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. The rapid loss of half of its population, about 2.6 million people, would create a failed state in a number of days. Moldova’s GDP was 11.91 billion USD as of 2020. This is compared to Ukraine’s 155.6 billion USD GDP and Russia’s 1.483 trillion USD GDP that same year.
Moldova’s economy has already been stretched to its limit as it welcomes and cares for Ukrainian refugees. As reported by RFE/RL, “Moldova says it has received almost 16,000 [as of February 25th] Ukrainian refugees since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Interior Minister Ana Revenco said on February 25 that some 15,800 Ukrainian citizens had crossed the border into Moldova in the previous 24 hours. ” Per capita, Moldova is taking in and caring for the most Ukrainian refugees in Europe.
While many refugees have moved through Moldova on their way to other countries, a number have also decided to stay and wait out the conflict. Regardless, Moldova has provided support for refugees moving through the country, as well as staying in the country, with no real help at all from outside humanitarian groups, including the UN. The help coming into Moldova has largely been private, grassroots, governmental, and developed within the country.
This is starting to change somewhat, as we will discuss in a future article, but assistance is nowhere near where it should be.
As things develop in Odessa, Moldovans are paying attention. The coming days will tell, but it is not off the table that Europe may very well have to contend with a flood of Moldovan refugees on top of the already over 4 million Ukrainian refugees that have fled. Plus, Ukrainians will have lost one of their consistently safest exits out of the conflict zone.