MARIUPOL, Ukraine — The airport in Ukraine’s second-largest port has been shut for the last eight years. A Moscow-led “rebellion” around the city in 2014 made it too dangerous for planes to fly in.
At that time, Mariupol repelled the Russian-backed ”rebels.” But the city still sits adjacent to the front line, separated from a Russian-controlled enclave in eastern Ukraine only by military checkpoints that bar most vehicles — and by a buffer zone of wrecked seaside homes.
On a visit a week ago, as I spoke with locals and refugees from nearby Russian-occupied territory, I could easily imagine the future Vladimir Putin envisions for Ukraine. If Russia can gain control of the entire country via a second invasion, or can at least expand the eastern enclaves that Moscow already controls to include Mariupol, the outlook is grim.
Although the city is calm for the moment, the drama swirling around it is the most momentous crisis to beset Europe since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. It will test whether, 30 years later, Putin can re-create the heart of the Soviet empire by threatening or using force.
To reach Mariupol from the capital, Kyiv, I had to take a 15-hour night train that passed interminable stretches of flat farmlands separated by rows of ash and cottonwood trees. The city itself is dominated by two massive steelworks and by the rail tracks on which rolled metal sheets are carried to loading docks on the Sea of Azov.
The city’s port is operating at only around 50% to 60% capacity because Russia now illegally controls the narrow entrance to the Azov and often blocks the entry of international ships that export Ukraine’s steel and grain to the world.
In better days, Mariupol was a tourist destination, with modest beach resorts and a small, attractive historic downtown centered on the Greek revival-style drama theater in the main square.
Then came 2014, when Russia sent thuggish Ukrainian “separatists” from Moscow to eastern Ukraine to lead the rebellion against the Kyiv government. (During a 2014 visit to nearby Donetsk, I interviewed some of the separatist leaders and they made no secret of their Moscow affiliations.)
Separatist militias lobbed shells at a market place in the eastern section of Mariupol in 2015, killing dozens of civilians. I stopped at two poignant stone memorials on the spot where the innocent victims were blown apart as they shopped at vegetable stalls, including a mother who famously died saving her small daughter, though the child lost an arm.
Local fighters drove out Moscow’s armed minions at the time. But when I interviewed Kseniya Sukhova, secretary of the Mariupol City Council, I learned that her office is still in a temporary location, because the original city hall remains a wreck, gutted by the invaders.
“Unfortunately, we have been living for the past eight years under a slow-burning conflict,” she told me. She is gamely trying to promote Mariupol as “a model city under difficult circumstances,” promoting better health care and new universities, fixing up the marina and parks, and holding cultural festivals. Sukhova praised USAID, the American foreign aid agency, for its support of some of the city’s projects.
But new business investment is hard to come by when no one knows if Putin’s proxies, helped by Russian soldiers, might try again to take the port. That is one of several scenarios Ukrainians envision as possibilities for the Russian troops assembled on their country’s borders.
Under this option, Putin could recognize the “independence” of the occupied territories in Ukraine’s east, which border Russia. He could then have their leaders openly invite in more Russian troops who would no longer have to pretend they weren’t there.
The object would be to permanently destabilize Ukraine, making NATO or European Union membership impossible. As part of this option, Russia might try again to occupy Mariupol port.
Meanwhile, 100,000 of Mariupol’s current population of 550,000 are refugees from the occupied areas of Donetsk province.
Vladyslav Serbin, one of the refugees from the city of Donetsk, described to me the awfulness of life under occupation.
Serbin was a university student in Donetsk when armed men appeared there, destroyed the airport, and took over the city administration. “I saw Russian army forces on the streets. They weren’t even hiding it,” he recalled. His voice shook with anger, as we conversed inside a car to avoid the biting cold outside.
Donetsk’s coal mines (formerly subsidized by Kyiv) are being shut, he said, while factories are disassembled and their machinery sent to Russia. Non-uniformed men with guns roam the streets, and no one dares criticize the Russian-backed, Mafia-style leaders.
The new regime has some support, Serbin admitted, from Ukrainians who had served in the Russian army or elderly Russian speakers nostalgic for the Soviet Union. But businesspeople, those who are educated like himself and his mother, and those who resent the repression have fled to Mariupol or elsewhere in Ukraine.
“People who live there do not hope for tomorrow,” he told me bitterly, while recounting the story of his grandma who couldn’t leave and died alone there of COVID-19. “Ukrainians who are armed can take whatever they want.”
This is the nightmare most residents of Mariupol want to avoid at all costs.
Civic activists are mobilizing to be ready in case the worst scenario materializes. Kateryna Sukhomlynova was one of thousands of civilians who rose to the occasion in 2015 when the separatists attacked an unprepared Ukrainian army that was barely functioning, without uniforms or food. “We tried to help any way we could,” she said. “We cooked borscht and soup for them,” she added, starting to cry at the memories.
Now, aided by the Maltese Red Cross, she has organized several projects to ensure that volunteers are prepared to aid a far better organized Ukrainian army as well as local civilians, in case of another invasion.
“The reality is so different now,” she said, standing in her office under paintings of civilians tortured and murdered by the invaders in 2015. “People from all over Ukraine are sending food. Even babushkas [grannies] are sending the last [cents] from their pensions.
“Medical aid is now being sent from Germany and Poland,” she continued, “to help train local people in first aid in case another war starts. We’re not as helpless as we were in 2014.”
However, Sukhomlynova is worried that City Hall has not notified citizens, schoolkids, or teachers of where they can shelter in case of an air attack.
Yet, she said, locals will not flee if the fighting starts again.
“We would like the world to know this is our land, our hometown, and we are not leaving,” she said firmly. Then her tears began to fall once more.