Stalled Elsewhere, Russia Focuses on Mariupol in Ukraine Plan B

The bombardment of Mariupol from land, sea and air continued, as a Russian ultimatum for the city’s surrender expired.

Stalled Elsewhere, Russia Focuses on Mariupol in Ukraine Plan B
Pedestrians in the Skhidnyi District of Mariupol, Ukraine. (Photographer: Christopher Occhicone/Bloomberg)

Russia is refocusing its military campaign in Ukraine on the east and above all the port city of Mariupol, in a drive to seize territories at the heart of what may become a narrower set of war aims for President Vladimir Putin. 

The bombardment of Mariupol from land, sea and air continued on Monday, as a Russian ultimatum for the city’s surrender expired around sunrise. The intensity of the attack is all the more striking given the slowing Russian war effort elsewhere.

With reports of fighting in the center of the city, the siege has reached a grim stage. Much of the pre-war population of about 500,000 has managed to leave, but people are still trapped there without running water or heat, and having to scavenge for food. There are no reliable casualty estimates amid claims on social media of collective graves and bodies abandoned in the streets. 

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has described the assault as a war crime that will be remembered “for centuries.”

Stalled Elsewhere, Russia Focuses on Mariupol in Ukraine Plan B

Officials and diplomats from several countries say the intensification around Mariupol suggests the Kremlin’s short term plans are shifting gears following the failure of an attempt to force rapid regime change in Kyiv, strip the nation of its armed forces and create a dependent relationship similar to the one Moscow has with Belarus.

Instead, Russia’s focus now appears to be to take those parts of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of Donbas not already under its control and secure a land corridor to Crimea, the peninsula jutting into the Black Sea from the Ukrainian mainland that Putin annexed in 2014. 

Russia has also made clear it would expect Ukraine to declare its neutrality in order to stop the conflict. According to a senior U.S. administration official, Russia also would want to be named as Ukraine’s security guarantor.

Ukraine is unlikely to accept those demands, even as the situation in Mariupol becomes ever more desperate. Authorities have pressed for humanitarian corridors to evacuate people from the city since March 5, but multiple efforts have had limited success. Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych acknowledged on Friday that Ukrainian forces have no way of breaking the siege, because they would have to cross at least 120 km (75 miles) of open terrain to get there.

Stalled Elsewhere, Russia Focuses on Mariupol in Ukraine Plan B

On Friday, Zelenskiy aide and negotiation team member Mykhailo Podolyak told Bloomberg TV that while there had been some progress in peace talks, a resolution could take weeks, with territorial concessions off the table. Ukraine has also said repeatedly that security guarantees would need to come from nations including Germany and the U.S., not Russia.

Moscow continues to say it wants to see the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of all Ukraine. The Defense Ministry on Sunday accused “Ukrainian neo-Nazis” of blocking 4.5 million civilians in cities to keep them as human shields, Tass reported. There has been no support for that claim from people interviewed as they escape Mariupol and other cities.

But if Russia is indeed shifting to more limited immediate goals, Mariupol holds the key. It is the last piece of Ukrainian-held territory blocking a land corridor, the largest city in Donetsk and Luhansk still in Ukrainian hands, and an important steel making hub and port for the transport of goods and grain from the eastern territories that Putin plans to sever.

Stalled Elsewhere, Russia Focuses on Mariupol in Ukraine Plan B

Russia would then own both coasts of the Sea of Azov, turning it into a Russian lake while releasing troops and armor to boost other fronts within Ukraine. These are military gains that would be difficult to reverse, forcing Ukrainian troops to counterattack across the open plains of the south, where Russia’s military can make the most of its advantages in equipment and firepower.

Taking Mariupol would also offer a significant victory for a campaign that has otherwise seen Russia’s armed forces struggle against a much smaller, but more determined and nimble adversary. The Azov regiment, with its Nazi-Germany era wolfsangel insignia, is part of Mariupol’s defense force and has been key to Putin’s baseless accusation that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis.

“I think Moscow is searching for something it can use to declare a victory. Taking the Donbas, and having leverage to attain concessions from Kyiv is probably what they’re looking to accomplish at this point,” Michael Kofman, a specialist on the Russian military at CNA, a Washington think tank, said in a Sunday Twitter thread.

Stalled Elsewhere, Russia Focuses on Mariupol in Ukraine Plan B

Kofman said Russia had dispersed its forces across too many fronts, succeeding fully on none, as a result of fundamentally misguided assumptions about Ukraine and its military. He said the next week was likely to see a significant attempt by Russian forces to close on Mariupol and on Ukrainian troops holding a more than 400 km line in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“There’s a desperation to show progress. Increasingly it looks as though the Russian mil is focusing on the Donbas, and maintaining along other fronts,” Kofman wrote.

Putin has from the outset called the conflict a special military operation to protect the Donbas area, where pro-Russia separatists have been fighting for years. That could give him a claim of success to fall back on in his rhetoric.

Kofman forms part of an emerging consensus among officials and military analysts that Russia is reaching a point of so-called culmination or exhaustion, at which it would have to pause to reconsider its strategy, replenish losses and regroup. That would give Ukraine time to do the same, but may not be a good sign for Kyiv in the longer term. 

“The point is that although Russia has been out fought and out thought by the Ukrainians, this only makes them -- and Putin -- more dangerous,” Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general, said in another Sunday Twitter thread.

Stalled Elsewhere, Russia Focuses on Mariupol in Ukraine Plan B

Russian forces have for the first time been digging trenches around their positions near Kyiv and placing land mines to defend them, according to the latest assessment by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington non-profit. It saw those as indications that it’s preparing to pressure the capital through shelling, rather than continue with efforts to encircle and capture it.

The ISW also reported stalled Russian campaigns in the south, toward the Black Sea port of Odesa, and in the north, around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said it saw other signs that Moscow is preparing the Russian population for a long war, including covert attempts at mobilizing new recruits across parts of the country, and to draft mercenaries from Libya, as well as Syria.

Not all sources agree the Russian military has changed its focus. 

Two diplomats from western governments said there was little indication Putin’s overall intentions had shifted. The people said they expected Russian forces would regroup before continuing to attack Kyiv, and remained skeptical about Russia’s genuine engagement in the peace talks.

The U.K. Defence Ministry said in a Monday update that “despite the lack of progress, Kyiv remains Russia’s primary military objective and they are likely to prioritize attempting to encircle the city over the coming weeks.”

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