Battle of Mariupol Formally Ends After 82 Days
Was really over a month ago
This marks the formal end of the siege of Mariupol, albeit the battle was already mostly over by April 22 when the last resistors retreated into the city’s gigantic steel plant.
Counting all the cities over 100,000 the Russians have captured so far produces the list of:
Mariupol — 600K
Kherson — 300K
Melitopol — 150K
Berdyansk — 100K
That’s it. That’s the whole list.
Taking Kherson mostly intact and over just a few days was a big coup for the Russians. Taking Mariupol was much costlier by comparison for the Russian military and especially for the city itself.
By offering tenacious resistance in Mariupol for two months until April 22 the Ukrainians forced the Russians to take losses, tied down some forces, and ensured the city Russia captures is a financial sinkhole that will take billions to rebuild.
Mariupol is 50% ethnic Russian and 50% ethnic Ukrainian which in practice means that people there are heavily intermixed and do not regard the Russian-Ukrainian divide as a particularly hard one or even a meaningful one. They are precisely the people who believe that Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same, because in their locality that is exactly right.
By and large, they do not appear to resent the Russian presence, or even blame Russia for the destruction of their city.
Of course Mariupol is 15 kilometers from the 2014 armistice line. The further west and north the Russians venture the less of this pro-Russian bias they will encounter and the more pro-Ukrainian bias they will have to contend with.
Today no one builds fortresses anymore. With the firepower available today a fortress built to resist it would be prohibitively expensive. However our sprawling cities are natural fortresses. The sheer amount of concrete soaks up firepower and offers the defender an abundance of dominant firing positions.
Contrary to popular misperception fortresses were never built to be impregnable. They were built to slow down an invader and raise his costs.
The idea was often that fortresses would eventually fall but would prolong the campaign for the enemy so much that he might go bankrupt or have his armies decimated by disease before he was able to finish the conquest.
Larger powers built them with the idea to buy time until a counterattacking force could be organized. Or to defend a less important border while armies were away attacking in a key region.
But especially for weaker powers fortresses were a weapon of attrition, not of static defense.
Early Netherlands is a classic example of a small power that was able to defy attempted reconquest by the world hegemon of the day in this way. Habsburg Spain could take any and all fortresses, but the Dutch were able to ramp up the price to a point where Madrid decided it wasn’t worth the treasure.
Seen in this way the effort that was needed to capture Mariupol does not necessarily bode well for Russia. If henceforth each and every large city has to be taken in a similar manner then how far can Russia (at partial manning) go before exhaustion? And what will it have to show for it? Bombed out hellholes?
Capturing fortresses is bloody and time and resource-intensive work. How many more Mariupols does Russia (which is declining to even use its serving conscripts) have in her?
Nikolayev (500K), Odessa (1M), Krivoy Rog (600K), Zaporozyhe (700K), Dnipro (1M), Poltava (300K), Kharkov (1.5M). How many of these can Russia realistically take before it has to ask for peace (or go to full manning)?
In fact right now Russia is fighting a second Mariupol in Severodonetsk, which is proving to be nearly as taxing and destructive. Together with Rubizhne and Lisichansk the city forms an urban agglomeration of 300,000. An agglomeration for which the Russians have been fighting for since around March 15. So far of the triple cities only Rubizhne has been taken.
Quite possibly the Ukrainians are preparing to offer similar resistance in Slavyansk (100K) and Kramatorsk (150K).
So far the Ukrainian decision to treat cities as fortresses and leverage them to tie down the enemy and raise his costs (as was Soviet defense plan had they found themselves in a similar situation) looks like a good call and the best strategy available to it.
It also means heavy losses for Ukrainian defenders, but their losses would be higher if they tried fighting in the open instead. Losses are compounded if/when cities are surrounded and the garrison is eventually forced to surrender, but that is the cost of doing business. No fort garrison is expected to last forever without relief. Also, unlike Russia, Ukraine is conscripting for the war and can stand up replacements in their thousands.
*The Ukrainian regular army retreated from Kherson leaving behind local territorial militias and civilians with Molotovs.