Pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of Ukraine launched a new offensive against the port city of Mariupol on Saturday. City officials said at least thirty residents had died in rocket attacks.
The city of half a million, situated on the Sea of Azov, is vital to Ukraine’s grain and steel exports. Claiming it for the separatists would enable Russia to build a land bridge from its territory to the Crimea, the peninsula it took from Ukraine in March.
“The region is currently accessible to Russia only by air and across the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Robert Coalson reported last year. A land bridge, he argued, “would make it much easier for Moscow to supply Crimea.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has monitors on the ground in Ukraine, said in November it feared an assault on Mariupol.
A prolonged campaign against the city could be bloody, warned Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley the same month. Unlike Ukrainians further east, the citizens of Mariupol are far from eager to live under Russian occupation and have had months to prepare a defense.
If they do take the city, the separatists would also be defending an even longer line of control.
Ukrainian forces originally withdrew from Mariupol in May when civil unrest broke out in the city. The army moved back in the following month.
The rebels’ latest offensive could indicate that the ambitions of Russia, which is partly orchestrating the insurrection in southeastern Ukraine, are broader than many Western analysts assumed. However hard it may be to push the Ukrainians out of the region, the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, may well be determined to restore Russian suzerainty over Novorossiya, a term he started using in speeches to refer to coastal southern Ukraine in the middle of last year.
The area, which stretches from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk — both in rebel hands — in the east to Odessa, which has a large ethnic Russian population, in the west, was conquered by Russia in the late eighteenth century and transferred to Ukraine after the 1917 revolution. The Crimean Peninsula remained part of Russia until it was added to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.
Throughout last year, Russia denied Ukrainian and Western accusations it was supplying the rebels in Ukraine with weapons, including missile launchers that were likely used to shoot down a commercial airliner in June, killing nearly three hundred passengers and crew. The European Union and the United States imposed economic and financial sanctions after the annexation of the Crimea, triggering a trade war with Russia which banned certain agricultural imports from Eastern European countries and reduced natural gas flows to Poland and Slovakia.