Here’s Why Mariupol Is Such A Prized Target For Russia


Mariupol, the heavily besieged southeastern Ukrainian port city with a pre-war population of about 400,000 that largely has been reduced to rubble since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, may fall to Russia within the week according to experts, which would give Russia a significant tactical and economic advantage during the war that follows.

Key Facts

Mariupol will fall in the “coming days,” an anonymous European official told reporters Tuesday, matching an assessment Monday by the Institute for the Study of War that Russians will capture Maripol “in the coming week,” as the Ukrainian defense of Mariupol has been reduced to a small group of fighters in the Azovstal industrial district who continue to defend the city in defiance of several Russian surrender ultimatums.

Most critically, a Russian victory in Mariupol would give Russia access an “unencumbered land bridge” from the Crimean peninsula it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014 to the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine, a U.S. senior defense official said Tuesday, potentially enabling easier troop mobilization into the Donbas that has become the new focus of Russia’s invasion.

More generally, Mariupol is part of “Novorossiya” (New Russia), a term used by Russian President Vladimir Putin following the annexation of Crimea to describe areas in southern and eastern Ukraine that he believes belong to Russia.

Mariupol is the largest trading port on the Sea of Azov and the primary export center for goods in southeastern Ukraine, and the city falling would help to “effectively cut Ukraine off from access to the sea,” Georgetown University researcher Margarita Konaev told NPR, crippling its economy.

Representing Russia’s most notable win since the war began, capturing Mariupol would likely be a huge propaganda boon for Putin.


Russia has cited the controversial white supremacist history of the right-wing Azov Batallion, a Ukrainian military unit defending Mariupol, with Putin defending the invasion as an effort to “denazify” Ukraine. But the unit claims to have shed its more extreme elements.

Key Background

Mariupol has been the site of a humanitarian crisis since the beginning of the invasion, as efforts to evacuate civilians and provide supplies through safe corridors have repeatedly failed. At least 10,000 civilians have died in the city during the war, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told the Associated Press last week, though the civilian death toll has yet to be independently verified. Russia has recently shifted the focus of its invasion to capturing the Donbas region largely under Russian separatist control, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday a “very important” new stage of Russia’s offensive in the Donbas is underway. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday Ukraine isn’t willing to cede any territory to Russia, including in the Donbas.

Crucial Quote

“The Russians completely destroyed Mariupol and burned it to ashes,” said Zelensky during a video address to South Korea’s National Assembly last week. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said “the city doesn’t exist anymore,” about Mariupol during a Sunday appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation.

What We Don’t Know

An emerging theory suggested in recent columns in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal suggests Putin’s primary motive for ordering an invasion of Ukraine is to access the country’s expansive natural gas reserves primarily located in eastern Ukraine. However, considering Ukraine’s reserves amount to less than 3% of Russia’s reserves and significant challenges in Russia ever accessing or selling any Ukrainian gas, this rationale is highly unlikely, according to research from the ​​RAND Corporation think tank.

Further Reading

Explainer: Mariupol: ruins of port could become Russia’s first big prize in Ukraine (Reuters)

Battle for Donbas: 3 reasons why Russia is shifting its war machine to east Ukraine (CNBC)

Russia Will Likely Capture Mariupol ‘In The Coming Week,’ Think Tank Says (Forbes)

What the city of Mariupol means for Ukraine — and for Russia’s military campaign (NPR)

Massive Bombardment Signals Russia’s Renewed Offensive In Eastern Ukraine (Forbes)