28 Aug 2014

Ukraine: is Mariupol the new front in separatist war?

If it is to be the new front in this growing war then it is certainly a place of some significance. As you drive south from Donetsk it is the smokestacks you see first coming up from the summer heat haze of the steppe.


The chimneys of Mariupol where one the the biggest integrated steelworks in the world dominates the city skyline outside for miles, and inside the port town. Yes, a port too – the strategic significance underlined.

Not only that, the city sits conveniently at the head of the land bridge to a place now a part of Russia – the Crimean peninsula.

Right now Kiev is reinforcing the city against what it perceives as an oncoming onslaught of separatists and Russian troops.

Read more: is Ukraine part of Putin’s ‘resurgent Russia’?

Again Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev has accused Russian forces of direct involvement but today he ratchets it all up to a full-scale invasion in his telling of it.

Independent observers are certainly seeing hundreds, possibly several thousand Russian soldiers heading towards the Mariupol fighting zone.

Separatists on the ground happily admit to the cameras that yes, our Russian friends are with us – but it is merely that they are coming here during their holidays rather than going to the beach.

Plausible? Well I can’t see too many takers…

Where Mariupol’s allegiance lies in terms of its population is difficult to judge with any accuracy. Back in the summer tens of thousands lined up to vote to quit Ukraine in the hastily organised and somewhat ramshackle referendum recognised by virtually nobody.

Read more: in Eastern Ukraine, a referendum…but not as we know it

It was an impressive sight as the queues snaked their way along the wide, tree-lined streets so empty of traffic you could hear the distant steelworks smoking and humming, oblivious in the distance.

But how many stayed at home in a city of several hundred thousand people? Wanting to stay with Kiev but keen to stay safe and say nowt?

It was just at this time that the man behind the steelworks, the man who owns Shaktar Donetsk FC, the man who owns one of London’s most expensive houses – Rinat Akhmetov – personally organised his own steelworker-peacekeeping force  to take to the streets of Mariupol with nothing more than sticks and wipe away the armed heavies of the separatist militia. business and civil war don’t mix, you understand.

Employees of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works hold a rally to protest against actions of armed separatists, in Mariupol

For a few weeks it seems to work. Things calmed down.

But now fighting is returning and with heavy weapons this time around eastern Ukraine’s key port and steel town. Just as it is raining shells and bullets into districts of Donetsk itself.

Things have moved beyond even the fiat of oligarchs like Mr Akhmetov and the needs of cash and big business. Serious times indeed.

Follow @alextomo on Twitter

Tweets by @alextomo