By Paul Wallis
Information about Mariupol is interesting but hardly informative. A statement 6 hours ago says it’s been taken. A statement 4 hours ago says Russia is pressing its attack. None of the Ukrainian prisoner pics show any Ukrainian identification like shoulder patches and armbands.
In short, it’s a routine exercise in 1960s-style Cold War publicity. Having now claimed to have taken Mariupol multiple times in the last week, two hours ago Russia has issued an ultimatum to the defenders threatening yet another war crime if they don’t surrender.
Mariupol has been under attack from day one of the invasion. It’s been isolated for months. The place is utterly devastated, with very little left of any working infrastructure. It’s been the site of many atrocities, notably the attack on the local theater. Tens of thousands of people haven’t been able to leave.
As Russia’s northern offensive evaporated and ran away, Mariupol held out. The rest of the northeastern offensive also collapsed.
Another military embarrassment
As a military operation, Mariupol has meanwhile been a total disaster for the Russians. A few Ukrainian troops have held up the entire southern front for months. They blocked the “land corridor to Crimea” and stopped it cold.
The land corridor itself is more than slightly absurd. A 50-100km wide strip of land gives no immunity whatsoever to attack of any kind the Ukrainians feel like mounting. That’s no distance at all for aircraft, missiles, or anything else.
They also have to continue to defend this useless space, using up more resources from their ever-dwindling rabble. If they don’t hold it, road traffic will be decimated as usual by the Ukrainians. The port of Mariupol is also hardly immune to Ukrainian attack. It’s well within range of anti-ship missiles, land-based missiles, and airstrikes. You can see how much Mariupol has had its impact amplified by this sort of obsolete planning.
The longer this war goes on, the fewer troops and equipment Russia has to work with. The much-touted eastern offensive is now underway (with remarkably little fanfare) and already slowing. One Ukrainian village reported repulsing six Russian attacks a few days ago.
Another point or two to be considered by the professionals:
- Ukraine says it has suffered 3000 military casualties in the two months of fighting.
- Mariupol took the brunt of the fighting in the south. It clearly accounts for a significant part of those casualties.
- So… How combat-effective were the Russians in the north? Obviously, much less effective than even the skeptics were saying.
Note: If Ukrainian estimates of Russian casualties are right, a Russian soldier dies roughly every 4 minutes in Ukraine. Oddly for any war, Ukrainian estimates might actually be under the mark. Obviously, they can’t accurately estimate casualties behind Russian lines caused by drone and artillery strikes. This underestimate is plausible based on the astonishing lack of Russian achievements and the sheer number of local defeats in the north.)
Not a great look, is it? How can Mariupol equate to a Russian victory? All they’ve achieved is another major liability at great cost.
A rather nasty analogy
Russian forces have been chewed up and tied down in Mariupol for that long. The place is effectively unusable as a staging area for anything much. It can’t even support its own population.
This war is expensive in more than lives; not that Russia seems to mind massive casualties. If Russia is spending as little as $1 billion a day on the war, it’ll be broke soon enough burning up foreign currency reserves. If it’s $10 billion (still cheap for so many troops and so much equipment) it’ll go broke a lot sooner.
Russian revenue is drying up and will continue to deteriorate severely. Incoming EU embargoes on Russian trade will do huge economic damage. China may provide credit, but to what extent, and for how long? Even that can only keep the nominal costs running for a while.
That lifeline could turn into a noose if the Chinese decide to play hardball. China can now dictate to Russia on any terms it sees fit. If someone’s looking for an existential threat to Russia, this one is entirely self-inflicted.
Russia might also consider the fact that nobody in the West is even considering lifting sanctions. These sanctions can go on and shut Russia out of the global economy. If sanctions continue for a decade, a lot of the world won’t even be using oil and gas for fuel.
Russia’s habitual failure to observe international law will backfire badly. Failure to cooperate with war crimes prosecutions will extend the sanctions indefinitely. This is not a war Russia can win. It’s just that there are so many more ways of losing it.
This is the Russian economic equivalent of Mariupol. Let’s see if they can defend Russia as well as the Ukrainians defend their city.