24 Feb 2015

Mariupol – the next front in the Ukraine war?

Out on the plains, under the immense skies here, you come upon the stark reminders out of nowhere.

No sound but the biting wind of the winter steppe. A crumbling concrete bus shelter by the empty road. You hear a car coming a mile distant out here.

A dog trots across the pitted tarmac, pauses, and is off into the limitless fun, frozen, fields.

Across the road, the tank on its concrete plinth points accusingly west, reminding lonely traveller how the Wehrmacht foundered in the immensity of this land and its pitiless winter: The Great Patriotic War.

Other guns now point west too these days. Unlike this statue, they are not silent. We hear the booming of their shells as we pause at the edge of Mariupol.

Out here in the countryside we see the churning tracks of tanks that came this way from the east, heading west. Very recently.

The border with Russia is mile or two distant. A blue washed concrete arch in another desolate tree-lined road marks its location.

At a windy crossroads miles from any sign of human habitation, another memorial and this time the foxholes and sandbags of a current war at its feet.

The war has come south. To the shores of the Sea of Azov where the life-guards’ hut stands in the blue and yellow Ukrainian colours beneath dark blue and cloudless skies and golden inviting sands.

But the sands give way not to sea at this season, but pack ice and it too is flowing west with the tide.

So movement to the west. The Ukrainians angrily accusing Moscow of sending two more convoys of heavy armour over the frontier to Ukraine over the weekend by road and rail.

We hear the shelling but cannot gain access to it. This it seems, is a far more secret war than what has been going on to the north.

The prize? Why Mariupol of course, whose steelworks must surely be one of the biggest industrial plants on earth.

Five blast furnaces seeth and steam, dominating the Eastern skyline. Sixty thousand work here – that’s almost three times the workforce of the BBC – in one plant.

More than a third of the entire industrial output of Eastern Ukraine comes from this extraordinary city.

Its enormous deep water port to the west, bristling with (largely idle) cranes; steel rolling mills and furnaces to the east; coal to the north and between it all a city rightfully proud of its heritage with wide avenues, seafront and imposing neo-classical theatre in parkland.

We meet Colonel Viktor Shedlyuk, an amiable Ukrainian commander of of a military sector of the city. He agrees there is serious fighting around a town to the east of the city:

“There is no ceasefire at the moment at all – there is heavy fighting around Shirokino every day – there are tens of attacks daily…they use artillery including tanks which are used for hours against our soldiers and only the bravery of our soldiers allows us to withstand it.”

With him, Viktoria, a middle-aged woman, clearly well off and incandescent with anger at what her city has come to. A volunteer activist she is handing out leaflets with photographs of separatist fighters taken in the city labelled “terrorists”:

“We are expecting a battle because we understand that Putin has big plans – to take all of Europe and Ukraine is the testing ground.  They want to take back all the countries that have broken away. They hate everything Western – that’s something that should be understood and accepted. For them Democracy is Hell just like for us Russia is hell.”

Viktoria is not a woman to repose in doubt about what is happening. Any more than the masked young men who popped up after dark in this city, burning an effigy of the former (and elected) pro-Moscow president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych:

“If he ever dares to come back to Ukraine,” they shout, “this is what will happen to him.”

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