The brutal Russian assault on the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol is exposing one of Vladimir Putin’s biggest lies—that the invasion was necessary to protect Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population from “genocide.” Instead, Putin’s forces have reduced to rubble what was once one of the most pro-Russian cities in Ukraine, according to an annual survey of Ukrainian public opinion.
At last Friday’s giant rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, Putin actually had the audacity to declare that the invasion was intended to get Russians in Ukraine “out of their misery, out of this genocide, that is the main reason, the motive, and purpose of the military operation that we began.”
But Russian forces are indiscriminately targeting civilians in cities throughout eastern and southern Ukraine—including Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city—which just happen to be the cities in Ukraine with the largest proportion of Russian-speakers.
Mariupol (originally named Marianopol) was founded in 1779 after Russia defeated the Ottoman Turkish Empire in several wars that included fighting along the Black Sea coast in what is now southern Ukraine. This was during the reign of Catherine the Great. Russia annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783 and brought in Ukrainian and Russian settlers to newly created towns which are now in the Ukraine war headlines—Kherson, Mikolayiv, Dnipro, and Odesa.
No city has suffered more in the current war than Mariupol, which joins the Chechen capital Grozny and Aleppo, Syria, among the cities leveled to the ground by Russian forces. And this might be one of Putin’s biggest blunders because the brutality of Russian forces is doing what might have seemed impossible before the war—uniting Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers in a common cause.
Mariupol has been the scene of some of the worst war crimes committed by the Russian invaders—bombing a maternity hospital, using the staff and patients at another hospital as human shields, and destroying a theater and school where hundreds of women and children had taken shelter.
Inside the city, there is a desperate humanitarian crisis for tens of thousands of residents left without water, electricity, or heat. Russian troops have blocked aid convoys from entering the besieged city. People fleeing Mariupol have been shot by Russian troops. Several thousand people who used an evacuation corridor were reportedly taken to Russian territories against their will, CNN reported.
And Putin has now unleashed Chechen paramilitary forces who are engaged in street fighting in Mariupol with the remaining Ukrainian defenders. These Chechen fighters, loyal to the pro-Kremlin leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, have a reputation for brutality and human rights abuses in their home country.
BEFORE THE WAR, MARIUPOL WAS ONE OF THE MOST PRO-RUSSIAN CITIES IN UKRAINE
Since 2015, the Ukrainian Sociological Group “Rating” has been conducting annual surveys of Ukrainian public opinion on behalf of the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The IRI and its counterpart, the National Democratic Institute, have both been involved in pro-democracy activities in Ukraine.
The latest survey, conducted from May 12-June 3, 2021, interviewed 19,196 respondents in the 24 regional capitals of Ukraine not under the control of Russian or Russian-backed forces. As a result, Mariupol, the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, was chosen to replace Donetsk, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Of the 24 cities surveyed, Mariupol ranked as the most pro-Russian. As you go further west in Ukraine to the city of Lviv, the results are diametrically opposite. Being pro-Russian doesn’t mean that Mariupol residents necessarily favored independence from Ukraine or annexation by Russia, but unlike residents of western Ukraine, they did oppose membership in NATO and the European Union, while supporting closer economic ties with Russia.
According to the results of the survey, if Ukraine could only enter one international economic union, which of the following should it be? Mariupol voted 48% for the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan as opposed to 22% for the European Union. And Mariupol’s citizens were 60% against joining NATO. Additionally, their attitude toward Russia was 52% at very warm, where it was only 15% very warm for the U.S.
These results are similar to the findings by VoxUkraine, an independent analytical group, which in November 2020 reviewed the results of a survey of Mariupol residents conducted by the Kyiv-based Center for Social Indicators. The survey found that “Mariupol remains a Russian-speaking city: only 0.9% report regularly speaking Ukrainian at home. … Russian is the preferred language of 81.9%, followed by Russian and Ukrainian in equal measure (9.6%) and Surzhyk (7.3%). A whopping 88% opined that Russian should be elevated to the status of second official (state) language.” Surzhyk is a mixed Russian-Ukrainian language.
The analysis concluded:
Mariupol’s population is divided between a large openly pro-Russian minority of at least 40 percent and a small explicitly pro-Ukrainian and pro-European minority, represented by between 10 and 20% of the population, probably closer to 10%. The remainder of the population’s allegiances and identities seems to be up for grabs.
It’s not likely that there will be surveys of Mariupol residents anytime soon. But if a survey could be done now, I wonder how dramatically different the results would be. That’s what Putin’s disastrous “special military operation” has done. He has destroyed one of the most pro-Russian cities in Ukraine in order to “save” it.
And that will surely resonate among Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population. It’s also a message that needs to get out to the Russian people to counter Putin’s big lie that his “special military operation”—don’t call it a war or invasion—was intended to save Russians in Ukraine from “genocide.” Instead, they are the victims of war crimes.
THE FIRST BATTLE OF MARIUPOL
After Ukrainians voted for independence in December 1991, Mariupol residents in subsequent elections overwhelmingly supported pro-Russian candidates and parties. In the 2012 presidential election, more than 80% of Mariupol voters supported the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was ousted in the February 2014 Maidan Revolution after he suddenly decided not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the EU, choosing instead to pursue closer economic ties to Russia.
The revolution led Putin to annex Crimea and foment a rebellion by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region which includes Mariupol. Clashes broke out almost immediately between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists in Mariupol. Ukrainian troops were forced to leave Mariupol on May 9, 2014, after heavy fighting. On June 9, Ukrainian forces, including the Azov Battalion, regained control of the city, Russian-backed separatists made repeated unsuccessful attempts to retake the city during the war in Donbas.
Mariupol became the headquarters of the Azov Battalion, a volunteer militia that later became part of Ukraine’s National Guard. The Guardian wrote back in 2014 that “Azov causes particular concern due to the far right, even neo-Nazi, leanings of many of its members.” Azov’s existence is one of the pretexts Russia has used for its invasion of Ukraine.
PUTIN WASN’T “SAVVY” ENOUGH TO STRIKE A DEAL WITH ZELENSKYY
In 2019, Ukrainians surprised the world when they overwhelmingly elected a Russian-speaking, Jewish comedian to be their president—rendering absurd Putin’s claim that Ukraine’s government needed to be “de-Nazified. In the first round of the presidential election, two pro-Russian candidates took a combined 50% of the vote in Mariupol, while Zelenskyy received just under 30%. But in the run-off election against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, Zelenskyy received more than 90% of the vote in the Donetsk region which includes Mariupol. With Zelenskyy winning more than 70% of the vote nationwide, there was new hope for peace.
Zelenskyy came to power promising to end the war in the Donbas region. He made a big push for a cease-fire in his first year in office. A December 2019 meeting with Putin in Paris only resulted in limited withdrawals from several hot spots on the front line.
Zelenskyy was willing to make some compromises to resolve the conflict, even though the mere suggestion was enough to lead to protests by Ukrainian nationalists. But even back in early 2020, Putin disparaged any chances for peace when he refused to acknowledge that Ukrainians had their own national identity.
He told the Russia’s official TASS news agency: “We are one and the same people. I don’t know whether they like this or not, but if you look at the reality, that is true. You see, we had no difference in our languages until the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.”
Putin’s intransigence set in motion the events leading to the invasion of Ukraine. By early 2021, he had already begun building up Russian forces along Ukraine’s borders.
REMEMBER MARIUPOL: ITS DESTRUCTION MAY BE ONE OF PUTIN’S BIGGEST BLUNDERS
When the war started, Putin’s propaganda claimed the “special military operation” was intended to defend Russian-speakers in Ukraine and that civilian residential areas would not be targeted. It’s obvious that both Ukrainian and Russian lives don’t matter to the despot sitting in the Kremlin—and Mariupol is the most tragic example of that.
“To do this to a peaceful city, what the occupiers did, is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” Zelenskyy said in a video address to the nation over the weekend.
The fall of Mariupol would be a strategic win for Russia. It would secure a land corridor between Crimea and the Russian-held areas of the Donbas region, freeing up Russian troops to advance in different directions. It would also deal a major blow to Ukraine’s economy because the port city is a key export hub for the country’s exports of steel, coal, and agricultural products. But at the same time it would be a pyrrhic victory for Putin.
Russian-speaking Ukrainians are not welcoming the invaders as liberators but instead rallying to the side of the Ukrainian government. How many of them would still support closer economic ties to Russia and its collapsing economy?
That was evident in a recent Daily Beast report out of the port city of Odesa, which has many Russian-speakers and is under threat of attack. Tina Shumilova, 38, had worked as a reporter In Moscow for the main state-funded TV network Channel One, but moved back to Odesa several years ago to use her savings to become co-owner of a popular strip club, which she described as a “much more honorable profession.”
She was volunteering as a logistical coordinator at a food hall which was being used to coordinate the distribution of food, medical supplies, and other essentials to the city’s residents. Shumilova said she has been training to fight alongside the military if Russian troops attacked the port city. “I will fight for my country until the end. Why? Because it is our country, not Putin’s, not these Russians!” she told The Daily Beast.
And then there’s one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of the Mariupol-based mining conglomerate Metinvest. The company’s Azovstal plant, one of the largest steel mills in Europe, has been badly damaged in the bombing and street fighting in Mariupol. In the past, Akhmetov, who is an ethnic Volga Tatar and Sunni Muslim, was noted as a financier and unofficial leader of the pro-Russian Party of Regions. He was actually the person who introduced Paul Manafort to the party’s then-presidential candidate Yanukovych, who hired the American as a political consultant.
But even though he was a political opponent of Zelenskyy, Akhmetov declared in a Forbes interview published on March 10: “What is unfolding here is a war crime and a crime against humanity, against Ukraine and the Ukrainians. This can neither be explained nor justified.”
Akhmetov replied to written questions from Forbes Ukraine from an undisclosed location in western Ukraine. “I can’t wrap my head around the fact that Mariupol is in a complete blockade in 2022, that people are forced to hide in the workshops of our production plants. It is impossible to hear or talk about it without tears in your eyes that people melt snow and drink meltwater to stay alive. That a 6-year-old girl died of dehydration under rubble at the center of Europe.”
Asked what would be a victory for Ukraine, Akhmetov responded: “A total ceasefire, complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, and full restoration of the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine. That includes the Crimea and Donbas.”
He concluded: ”I am in Ukraine and I am not going to leave the country. I share the same feelings with all Ukrainians: I am sincerely waiting for the victory of Ukraine in this war. And we will start to rebuild the country to make it happier and more prosperous. On my end, I will spare no expense or effort to achieve this goal.”
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