Ukraine crisis: All eyes turn to Mariupol as separatist showdown looms

Kiev's forces are digging in around the port to stop the opening of a land corridor to Crimea

Share

Mariupol is not among the places which became symbolic, or even particularly well known, to the outside world when the flames of separatism spread through the Donbass: but what happens there in the next days can be a game-changer in Ukraine's increasingly bloody and vicious civil war.

The forces of the Kiev government have made major gains in recent months, taking over the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk; surrounding the second largest city in the region, Luhansk; arriving at the gates of Donetsk, the capital of the 'Peoples' Republic'. But an unexpected counter-offensive has seen the separatists open a second-front, seize territory and, crucially, threaten to open a land corridor to Crimea giving the Kremlin full control of the Azov Sea. 

Retreating Ukrainian forces are digging in around Mariupol, a port just 30 miles from Russia, to stop this breakthrough from taking place; a strategically important town nearby, Novoazovsk, is under prolonged attack, say Kiev, with columns of tanks from across the border forcing entry after prolonged artillery bombardment.

So, the focus on the ground will be on Mariupol. It is, perhaps apposite that the showdown will take place there; the city illustrated the enmity between bitter enemies. Government forces, backed by private armies of right-wing nationalists, bankrolled by oligarchs, carried out an attack there on one of the most revered days in Russian-speaking part of the country - the commemoration of victory over Nazi Germany. “This is not about 2014 in Ukraine, this is about Berlin in 1945, that is what they want to avenge, the defet of their Nazi masters”, Captain Zorin Aleksandr Nicolaivitch, a naval veteran of 18 years, told me in a voice of rage.

The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, who says he wants to heal the bitter divide in his country, has asked for an emergency session of the UN security council, while in Brussels Nato issued images showing “concrete examples of Russian activity inside Ukraine” and stated that there are around a thousand Russian soldiers now inside Ukraine.

 

But such are the changed dynamic that Moscow, while issuing routine official denials about the involvement of its forces, appeared relaxed about state TV acknowledging for the first time that serving military personnel had gone over to fight - although they had done so as volunteers sacrificing their beach holidays.

Strong indications of Russian presence in another country, an ally of the West which wants to join the EU and Nato, should lead to massive international outcry. But although David Cameron declared that he was “extremely concerned” about the provocative and unacceptable“ reports of incursion, Angela Merkel called Vladimir Putin to stress they ”must be explained“ and Francois Hollande declared that it would be ”intolerable and unacceptable“, there were no indications of immediate retaliatory action.

 

Western powers had been distracted by the Gaza war and now over the bloody ascent of Isis. Trying, with some difficulty, to get together a coalition to bomb the Islamists in Syria, Barack Obama is not going to become engaged in a confrontation in eastern Europe. US officials have been saying that while they deal with matters in the Middle East and Asia, Europe with its economic leverage, should take the lead on Russia. But, while further punitive economic measures may hurt Russia, they will also cause damage to European commerce and industry.

Western governments are unlikely to be forced to take action by their electorates. The shock of seeing the Kremlin's ”green men“ in action abroad has palled after Crimea and, in the case of the Donbass, the Ukrainian government is suffering from ”crying wolf“. ”Russian forces have actually entered Ukraine“, said Mr Poroshenko in a statement. But, how many times has he and his ministers claimed that now? Indeed, the Ukrainian President called David Cameron earlier this month to say his artillery had destroyed an invading Russian tank column. Kiev, however, failed to produce any evidence of this triumph; the Russian foreign ministry described the claim as ”some kind of fantasy“.

Nato will hold one of its most important summits in its recent history next week and it is likely that a new set of sanctions will be imposed on Russia. But Putin knows that the Alliance will offer no military challenge and with his popularity climbing to 86 per cent from 55 per cent after the Ukrainian mission, this is a confrontation from which he cannot afford to back down.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there