“The guns have been firing for four years already,” Ukrainian military volunteer Galina Odnorog says in between shouting instructions to her team, and talking into the mobile phones seemingly pinned to either ear.
Mariupol - a Ukrainian port city between mainland Russia and Crimea - is “used” to being on high alert, she said: “We know Russia can attack us at any time.”
War has, indeed, never been far away from this town on the Azov Sea. The first lines of trenches, which appear just a few miles east of the city boundaries, speak of the current fighting. The damage and craters in buildings inside the town speak of the past fighting.
But last Sunday’s skirmishes in the Kerch Strait – which saw Russian forces block, ram and then fire on a Ukrainian flotilla trying to access the shared Azov Sea and Mariupol – have put the threats facing the city back in focus.
For a long while, locals assumed the main danger came from a direct invasion – by land and by sea. In the event, the crisis has come from much less tangible threat – a de facto blockade of merchant ships headed for the port.
Friday was the sixth day that Russian border guards held boats at the Kerch Strait, the narrow channel that allows entry to the Azov Sea from the Black Sea. As of Friday morning, 20 boats bound for Mariupol and Berdyansk were believed to be waiting. Unconfirmed reports suggest that only boats headed to Russian ports in the Azov Sea have been granted permission to pass the Kerch Strait.
So far, the blockade has had no notable impact on work in Mariupol’s 18-dock port. The Independent understands that on Friday, the port was working with near-normal volumes, loading the ships that were already in dock.
But without a resolution to the blockade, workers say they will be forced to wind down activities within the next few days. Parts of the neighbouring Berdyansk port were already reported idle on Thursday.
“If the blockade continues another week, real damage will be done,” said Marina Pereshevalevo, a trade union leader in the port. “I’ve worked here 32 years and it breaks my heart.”
Pressure has been building in the region since the outbreak of the war in 2014.
The port lost several key customers, especially coal mines, and a mainline railway when local territory fell to Russian-backed separatist forces. As a result, the port is operating below half capacity. If before the port handled a wide range of exports – coal, metal, grain, clay – now metal products from Mariupol’s three metal plants account for the vast majority (75 per cent) of its goods.
But the real troubles began with the building of a bridge from annexed Crimea to the Russian mainland in 2016.
Ukraine has never been happy with the bridge, but has also complained about construction getting in the way of shipping. In March 2018, with the bridge nearing completion, it struck an early blow by detaining a Crimean fishing ship sailing under a Russian flag. (Kiev refuses to recognise the annexation.) And Russia responded predictably enough by arresting several Ukrainian ships.
Then, on 15 May, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened his bridge to a great fanfare, driving a big orange truck across it. Within two days, Russian border guards switched to a harsher regime of checking Ukrainian ships. Moscow said they were security checks, but in some cases, the checks lasted 10 days.
The new bridge also introduced a new height restriction of 35m, instead of the 38m originally projected, meaning many of the larger boats using the Ukrainian ports could no longer pass.
Ukraine asserts that its ships have been demonstratively targeted by Russia in order to exert military control of the Azov Sea.
“They’ve only ever stopped Ukrainian boats, and they’ve always done it in a most provocative way, ” says Maria Podybailo, a history lecturer turned military support activist in town. “Some of the crews were forced to strip naked, supposedly because they may have had nationalist tattoos.”
Russia insists any delays to the passage of vessels were down to the weather. It denies restricting shipping.
Since the skirmishes began, Mariupol has seen its traffic decrease by about 30 per cent. This equates to millions of dollars in trading losses.
The situation remains delicate, but Ukraine’s response in the last week has been forceful, declaring martial law in 10 border regions, including the Azov Sea.
It is unlikely to help the situation, says the local industrialist and politician Serhiy Taruta, nor reassure potential clients that Mariupol is open for business.
As the man who governed Donetsk region when it descended into war in 2014, Taruta says he knows something about crisis management. He tells The Independent the Kiev government is repeating many of the same mistakes it made back then.
“We aren’t in any position to fight Russia, but for some reason we insist on testing them. We didn’t need to arrest the Crimean boat. And we could have sent the three military ships by train last weekend. Instead we tried to make a point by sailing through Kerch. It seems nobody in the Ministry of Defence did a proper analysis of what might happen.”
Mr Taruta, a critic of the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, said he believed Moscow had concluded Poroshenko was “incapable of compromise”, and would play politics with military escalation. For this reason, it was unlikely Moscow would start the major offensive that Poroshenko has been warning; the threat of a new military operation focused on Mariupol was “no more than two or three per cent”, he said. But if it happened, the Ukrainian front line would not stand a chance, martial law or no martial law. Soldiers are already demoralised by “years of static trench warfare”.
Rather than upping the militaristic ante, Ukraine’s government should focus on lobbying for an “international forum” to regulate merchant shipping in the region, he says.
Taruta’s positions are unpopular with Mariupol’s army of military activists.
According to Maria Podybailo, Taruta’s “relaxed attitude to the Russian threat” was one of the reasons Ukraine lost control of Donetsk. She said that she would not let the “same thing” happen again. The government in Kiev had taken a while to understand the threat this time, she added, and only after her “intense lobbying”. She says she believes the message “got through”. Kiev sent reinforcements and began working on a new naval base in Berdyansk.
Ukrainian authorities remain coy about the scope and size of that new base, but The Independent understands several small gunships are now located there. Some of those ships came by the sea route, through Kerch, but others were, indeed, transferred by rail.
What the base is not is a major military threat, given the dozens of large Russian battleships located in and around the Azov Sea.
And that, says trade union leader Pereshevalevo, is what makes Mariupol’s 3,000 port workers very worried about their futures.
“We’ve come through a war together, but this is is the hardest thing yet,” she said.
“Whole families work here, whole generations. If people lose their jobs, it would be a complete catastrophe.”
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