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What the city of Mariupol means for Ukraine — and for Russia's military campaign

FILE - A man walks with a bicycle in a street damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 10, 2022. In talks between Russia and Ukraine toward a possible cease-fire after three weeks of intense fighting, negotiators are exploring prospects of possible “neutrality” for Ukraine. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)
A man walks with a bicycle on a street damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, earlier this month.

The southeast Ukraine city of Mariupol has been battered by Russian airstrikes in recent weeks. Among the buildings hit have been a maternity hospital, a theater and an arts school. At least 2,000 civilians have died and some 80% of homes have been destroyed, according to city officials. Some 7,000 people were evacuated by convoy from Mariupol on Tuesday.

The result is a harrowing humanitarian crisis as Ukrainians shelter in basements, and safe passage out of the city for civilians is limited and sporadic.

Why is this city so important? There are several reasons — for the Russian military and for the people of Ukraine.

For Russia, Mariupol is a major port city in a key location

1. The city is in a strategic place militarily.

Mariupol is located between Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and the region of Eastern Ukraine called Donbas, much of which was already controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the "independence" of two enclaves there prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Those are the two areas — so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics — that have faced Russian aggression since 2014.

"Mariupol is right in between them. So taking Mariupol is part of the campaign in the south and the southeast to connect the Russian-held areas, essentially," Rita Konaev, an expert on the Russian military at Georgetown University, tells NPR.

By controlling Mariupol, Russia could potentially create a land bridge to Crimea and control the entire north shore of the Sea of Azov.

Russia hopes to hem in Ukrainian forces in the east and southeast of the country, a senior U.S. defense official said in a call with reporters on Tuesday. This could prevent the Ukrainian troops there from going to help in other parts of the country, particularly Kyiv, the official said.

2. As a port city, Mariupol is important economically.

Mariupol has long been an important industrial port city. In peacetime, it is a major site for exporting Ukrainian steel and grain.

That status has already been altered by war, says Liam Collins, a retired colonel with U.S. Army Special Forces who has trained Ukrainian forces. With Mariupol under siege, it's not able to currently produce for the war effort, he tells NPR.

The major impact would come if a negotiated settlement partitions off part of Ukraine, says Collins: "Ukraine's not going to want to do that after 2014 and 2015 [when Russia essentially took part of Eastern Ukraine], but it's always a possibility."

If Russia effectively cuts off Mariupol for the long term, and with it access to the Sea of Azov, it will damage Ukraine's finances and economic sustainability, hindering the country's ability to sell and ship its products.

"It's part of a broader effort to effectively cut Ukraine off from access to the sea, which is a really important part of Ukrainian economy and trade," Konaev says.

3. Taking Mariupol would be a boon to Russian morale.

If Russia succeeds in controlling Mariupol, it would be a major morale boost for Russia.

That's because, according to Konaev, the campaign in Ukraine "has not been going in any way that Russia has imagined and they've encountered significant military challenges. And they haven't had a real victory since they've taken Kherson, which is nearby, and even there, it remains contested."

"So at this point, they feel that it is effectively necessary to take Mariupol in order to maintain morale and keep the campaign going," Konaev says.

Collins says capturing Mariupol would be notable for Russia — it not only "shows that you're having success, but it shows that you control a larger city."

There's also the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could capitalize on taking Mariupol with specific propaganda. The Azov Regiment, a unit with neo-Nazi origins that has been folded into Ukraine's National Guard, is present in Mariupol. Because Putin has repeatedly and incorrectly framed his invasion of Ukraine as a denazification effort, winning Mariupol could provide new fodder for his false narrative.

4. If negotiations happen, new boundaries could be drawn.

At some point down the road, there could be negotiations — perhaps to achieve a cease-fire — in which new boundary lines are drawn.

Which areas are held by Russian forces could shape where a theoretical new line could be drawn. And if Mariupol falls to Russia, new lines could mean that it ends up as part of a Donbas that is controlled by Russia or as an independent republic, recognized by Russia.

But this isn't a war that Russia will win by conquering a certain amount of territory, Collins says. "There are no winners in this. It's war. Both nations are going to lose regardless of the outcome. It's just a matter of which one loses more."

For Ukraine, Mariupol has been inspiring — and losing it could make the war effort harder.

1. The Ukrainian army's resistance there has been a fuel for the Ukrainian people.

The Russian bombs have been terrifying and brutal for the people of Mariupol. And the grit that the city's residents have shown has been a source of inspiration to other Ukrainians. "Right now Mariupol is this legendary stronghold of resistance," says Konaev, "and I think it's fueling resistance everywhere else."

If Ukraine's military is able to hold on to Mariupol, it could set the tone for the rest of the country.

"That would just really amplify that David and Goliath story and could feel like a turning point," she says. While that might not be the decisive factor in a protracted campaign, she says it could be important in shaping the narrative around the war.

2. The humanitarian disaster could get worse if Russia takes the city.

Losing Mariupol to Russia would likely add further misery and devastation for the city's residents.

The city had already become home to many internally displaced Ukrainians who fled the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. "That secondary displacement is very difficult on people," says Konaev.

More than 41,000 people have fled the city in recent days, according to Mariupol city officials. But humanitarian corridors remain tenuous, and safe passage is far from certain.

3. It's not clear what Russia "owning" Mariupol would look like.

What would it look like for Russian troops to take — and control — Mariupol? It's likely, says Collins, that low-grade fighting would continue for a long time.

"Even if Russia gets to the point of so-called 'owning' it," says Collins, "they most likely will come under significant attack from the various volunteers that are in the city."

But Konaev doesn't think Russia needs to physically occupy Mariupol and other cities to achieve its aims.

"I don't think that they intend to occupy these cities," she says. "I think they intend to make some of them unlivable, so they can declare victory. And then use that as leverage to get whatever they want in the negotiations." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.