Yesterday the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, at peace for months now, was ripped back into the war. Separatist rebels launched rockets directly at the city, taking its residents by complete surprise and killing 30 people. The attacks follow a month of intensified fighting, with the ruins of Donetsk Airport finally falling to the rebels, and dozens of civilians dying due to artillery. So why is what happened in Mariupol so important, and what does this say about the separatists? Where to from here? And on a more personal note, why do I care so much about Donetsk?
What happened in Mariupol is important because it shows the separatists’ true nature so clearly. Mariupol has been outside the fighting for months now, and there is no doubt that it is on the government’s side. Without any warning or cause, with no artillery fire coming from Mariupol, the separatists fired Grad and Uragan rockets at the city. These weapons (see video) fire up to 40 rockets at a time, but there is no way of guiding them. They are designed to cause random damage and panic over a wide area. Using them to fire at an enemy in a civilian area shows disregard for civilian life. Firing them at exclusively civilian targets shows a desire to kill and terrorise. Video from Mariupol shows the utter surprise of the attack, as well as the tremendous damage (warning: second video is graphic).
In recent shellings of civilian targets, such as an incident this week when a trolleybus in Donetsk was hit, there was real doubt about who was to blame. Numerous civilians have died thanks to shelling, and the cause seems to be disregard for the chance of hitting civilians with inaccurate Soviet-era artillery. However, here the blame lies squarely with the rebels. Their response to the attack has been extremely confused. Firstly they said it was ‘misinformation’. Later in the day their leader Zakharchenko said that the attack was revenge for the shelling of the trolleybus, and that the “attack on Mariupol” had begun. Later that evening he then appeared to retract his previous statements, saying that they weren’t attacking after all. Russian media has also been notably silent and evasive.
So what will follow? After the fall of Donetsk Airport the rebels have indicated a desire to ‘liberate’ all of the Donbass. However, there is a chance that after yesterday’s shelling they will come under pressure from Moscow to avoid attacking until the media attention fades. The main pressure to act is on Ukrainian President Poroshenko. The fall of the airport and now the shelling of Mariupol will lead to cries for him to strike back or quit. His options are not good though. Defending the current frontline at all costs means giving up on the Donbass. Attacking will lead to more civilian casualties, and more Russian involvement. The summer saw the same trend; when Ukraine pushed forward, Russian troops became more involved. It’s a hard choice for a country deep in economic crisis.
Finally, I want to explain why I care quite so much about this conflict. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, I lived in Donetsk for five years between 2001 and 2006, in an apartment right in the centre. Until 2012 it was the longest I’d ever lived in one place. I was 8 when my family moved there, so it was where some of the most important years of my childhood were spent. The city’s streets, shops, parks and people play a part in so many of my memories, and I’d always assumed I would go back some day to visit. I was proud to see France play Ukraine in 2012 in the new Donbass Arena, and amazed to see a new airport replace the old Soviet style block.
Seeing the city on TV now is utterly bizarre. To see a war being fought on streets and around buildings I remember is not something I’d ever expected to see happen. Donetsk wasn’t a place where wars happened, it was a quiet city with decent people. To see what Russia’s war has done enrages me, and to see what it has done to the people is devastating. Nearly everyone I knew there has fled, and those remaining have been deeply affected by hatred and fear. To see Ukrainian soldiers being beaten and paraded through the centre of town is horrific, almost like watching a war movie being filmed in your home town. The images I see everyday simply don’t match the city I knew. That city is just a memory.