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Leonid Bershidsky

Mariupol’s History Helps Explain Putin’s Ukraine Fiasco

His biggest military error was ignoring how the city’s character had changed since his 2014 annexation of Crimea, and assuming its inhabitants would greet Russian troops with flowers.

The good life in Mariupol, circa 2017. 

The good life in Mariupol, circa 2017. 

Photographer: Pierre Crom/Getty Images Europe

Four weeks into its haphazard, brutal invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military appears to have paused active operations everywhere except the devastated city of Mariupol. The Sea of Azov port has become the focal point of the so-called “special operation” and of the invaders’ hopes for an outcome they could report to Vladimir Putin as a victory.

Mariupol, fully encircled by Russian forces at least since March 2, according to the Institute for the Study of War, is still not fully taken despite barbarous shelling and bombing. That makes it a symbol of Ukraine’s stubborn, desperate resistance. Ukrainian forces have been unable from the start to reinforce or relieve the city’s defenders, because it would have meant a more than 100-kilometer march across open terrain. So the defending troops — primarily the 36th Marine Brigade — have been fighting the war’s most protracted, bloodiest, most hopeless battle. The Ukrainian leadership recognizes that their determination may have forced the Russian invading army to stop trying to attack from every direction and concentrate on the Ukrainian pocket on the Azov coast.