“Do you know how the ruscists tightened the noose around the city’s throat? They came from different directions. We were sitting in our neighbourhood, listening to the hellish sounds and waiting in horror for them to come very close.
We knew they were bombing and shelling the streets nearby. We saw tanks with the letter Z on the side driving along the Myru (“Peace”) Avenue. The house two crossroads away went to eternal sleep. People said it came down from an air strike. Not everyone died under its rubble. Their moans and cries came to the surface. There was no one to get those people out. Before that, the first responder base was shelled.
Only monsters can shoot living people the way ruscists did it… We were like characters in a computer game for them. They were killing us with a laugh.”
This was written on Facebook by journalist Nadia Sukharukova, a resident of Mariupol who was lucky enough to get out of the city alive.
Even against the background of all the other crimes of Russian fascism in Ukraine, the tragedy of Mariupol occupies a special place.
Several hundred thousand inhabitants of the city found themselves in the hellish trap of the “Russian world”: among the cold, hunger, explosions and death. According to the mayor’s adviser Petro Andriushchenko, about 22,000 people died in the city. In the spring of 2022, it turned into one large cemetery, since it was impossible to bury people properly, with graves in almost every yard. A city with almost half a million inhabitants, which developed after the 2014 war as a showcase of Ukraine in the Donbass, was brutally destroyed.
So, how come Russia went so far as to destroy the city with no regard for its hundreds of thousands of residents and the entire world watching? What are the chances that the same thing could happen to Kyiv, had it been captured?
Why did Russia not allow people to leave before the assault? Should the Ukrainian authorities have acted differently and evacuated people before the trap was closed? What conclusions should Ukrainians and the world draw so that the tragedy of Mariupol does not happen again? Some even ask: Is there really God if He allowed Mariupol 2022 to happen?
Siege and assault on Mariupol
Journalist from Mariupol Maksym Hrabovskyi was a presenter on the local TV channel Donbas and was the first to tell on regional TV at 11:00 on February 24 in a special news program that the war had begun.
Looking at that episode, it is clear that the key message of the national and local authorities was not to panic and to have faith in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Mayor Vadym Boichenko also spoke about this at the first briefing.
“Nobody believed that Mariupol would be destroyed like that,” says Maksym Hrabovskyi. “I thought, well, the city will be captured, maybe there will be some fighting, destruction, well — we will be under occupation, keep doing our job and wait for the city to be liberated. Nobody believed that they wanted to destroy Mariupol instead of capturing it. It still makes no sense.”
The most successful enemy offensive developed in the south. On February 26, the Russian army captured Berdiansk. And on the 27th, on the fourth day of the war, it approached Mariupol from the western side. In the first days of the war, the inhabitants of the city, with a population of 432 thousand, were leaving, but not en masse. There were still free seats on trains.
A week after the invasion, on March 1, Mariupol was completely surrounded. Over time, Russian fascists pushed Ukrainian forces 120 km away to the north of the city. The occupiers controlled the land, sea and air around Mariupol. The unblocking required forces that the Ukrainian command did not have available in that direction.
Violent clashes broke out on the outskirts of the city. During March, the line of contact with fierce fighting went through residential areas.
Other Ukrainians, many already with experience of living in a place with missile strikes, can try to imagine what it is like when hundreds of explosions are happening in the city every day. “In one day, the Russian aviation bombed Mariupol over 22 times. Just think about it!!! More than 100 bombs were dropped. The ones that leave 4-meter funnels on the ground,” wrote Azov Regiment on Telegram on March 13.
According to Maksym Hrabovskyi, Russian planes were bombing Mariupol methodically, square after square, with no regard as to whether they were residential neighbourhoods or not.
On March 20, Azov Regiment wrote: “Think about it: every day, during a month. Planes fly over the city in turns, dropping bombs every 10-15 minutes. This is accompanied by constant attacks from artillery, tanks, MLRS… Ships are shelling Mariupol!!! Just imagine how many deaths each enemy strike brings. And how much suffering of those who are slowly dying under the rubble, thinking that the world has forgotten about them, that Ukraine does not hear them…”
“You could still hide in the hallway, behind two walls, from artillery. There was no chance to hide from the planes,” remembers Maksym Hrabovskyi. Most witnesses remember with horror the planes and their round-the-clock bombing with a break of several hours.
Elderly people died from lack of water or medicine if they could not walk and were left alone. There were many cases when old people simply jumped out of the windows due to hopelessness.
In early April, Ukrainian forces controlled only a large industrial area near the sea – the Seaport, Illich Metallurgy Plant and Azovstal. In early May, only Azovstal. On May 20, the Mariupol garrison, which was left without water and a field hospital due to a heavy bomb, was taken prisoner.
Maksym Hrabovskyi shares: “Since the first days, the tactic of the Russian army was to destroy all the vital communications, create an information blockade. To paralyse all utilities, ensure that neither food nor medicine could get into the city. The Russians targeted utility services — gas, electricity, power stations, pumping stations. In a mere few days, there was no more gas, power, water, heating in Mariupol, and all this with freezing temperatures outside. The military allowed taking food out of stores, except for alcohol. Somewhere around March 4, looting inevitably started.”
On March 2, because of observers working in the city council, the enemy found out about the warehouse of food and medication prepared in the city in case of the war and hit it with a missile.
The Russians were also striking hospitals and fire departments. On March 10, the day after the famous shelling of the maternity hospital, there was a direct hit on a fire department, where most of the equipment was stored. There was thus nothing left to put out fires.
According to Maksym, places with municipal buses, which were planned to be used for evacuation, were purposefully destroyed. Thus, the Russians deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructure, in particular, the city’s hospitals. Which, of course, is a violation of the rules of war. More precisely, this is state-sponsored terrorism, which has become a hallmark of Russia.
However, realizing the abnormality of what is happening, the Russians have been spreading rumours in the city that this is all the fault of Azov, which is trying to defend the city.
Has Russia violated the rules of war?
International humanitarian law states that all parties to a conflict have a legal obligation to plan and conduct military operations in such a way as to ensure the protection of civilians and objects.
Russia promotes the narrative that the Ukrainian military, while in the city, “hid behind civilians,” used them as a “living shield.” Thus, didn’t civilian buildings become legitimate military targets?
No. Even if it were true, an attack on the city would have been unacceptable, since it would clearly result in significant losses of civilian lives. In his article “Legitimate Targets of Attacks Under International Humanitarian Law,” Marco Sassoli explains it as follows:
“Once a military objective is the target, under additional rules, which are not discussed here, the attack may nevertheless become illegal if excessive collateral damage affecting civilians or civilian objects must be expected. Furthermore, even when attacking a lawful target, precautionary measures to spare civilians have to be taken.”
Thus, by allowing the mass death of civilians, Russia has violated the rules of war. What a surprise.
“It did not simply violate the rules, it just waged the war with zero regard to international law,” says military expert Oleh Zhdanov. “Mass shooting of buildings with civilians, mining of everything, including the bodies of the dead, when grenades are placed under the body. Russia has never limited its actions in war or conflict to international law. They don’t care about this ‘nonsense,’ as they say.”
Perhaps Ukraine has violated international law by defending itself in the midst of civilian objects? Oleh Zhdanov says that it was Russia that had to open humanitarian corridors and release civilians from the besieged city, and only then start hostilities there. Instead, Russia blocked the population in the city.
In its words, of course, Russia positions itself as the greatest peace-maker of all time, who has never attacked anyone first and, of course, opened the humanitarian corridors, which were blocked by nationalists.
“According to the decision of the Russian leadership, since March 4, 2022, the Armed Forces of Russia are opening a humanitarian corridor daily from 8:00 to 20:00 Moscow time without restrictions in strict adherence to the standards of international law and for purely humanitarian purposes,” said the message of Russia’s MoD.
According to Maxim Hrabovskyi, Russia has never opened a reliable corridor. “Until March 14, no one was officially released to Ukraine. Then there were several cases of cars that managed to get towards Novoazovsk. They immediately started using it in the information war: ‘See, the DPR lets people get to Novoazovsk, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine don’t let anyone get to Ukraine.’ On March 14, the Ukrainian authorities managed to reach an agreement, and Russia began to release those ready to go at their own risk. The official evacuation was only from Berdiansk. Ukrainian buses were able to reach Mariupol only in a month and a half, at the end of April.”
On March 6, the Azov Regiment reported that “for the second time now, despite the announced ‘green corridor,’ the occupiers are targeting it, violating the ceasefire.”
On March 8, Azov stated that the occupiers had attempted to break into the city at the very moment of the announced “green corridor,” using people as a shield.
During a meeting of foreign ministers Lavrov and Kuleba in Turkey on March 10, the latter said that their task was to agree on a humanitarian corridor from Mariupol.
Only after that, on March 14, the first 160 people in more than 50 cars were able to get from Mariupol to Zaporizhia. On the same day, the occupiers did not allow the Ukrainian evacuation convoy of buses with food to stop in Berdiansk, blocking the return of civilians to Ukraine.
Hitting civilians to take revenge on the military?
However, on March 16, one of the most tragic events took place — a Russian air bomb destroyed the Drama Theatre. An investigation of Associated Press journalists found that about 600 people, including children, were killed in the air strike.
AP researchers recreated the events of that day based on the testimony of 23 people who were at the Drama Theatre and first responders. None of the witnesses saw the Ukrainian military operating inside the building, as Russian propaganda claimed. And none of the AP respondents had any doubts that the theatre was destroyed during a Russian air strike.
On the same day, on March 16, Russians struck another civilian object, the Neptune swimming pool. The number of victims is unknown, but according to Maksym Hrabovskyi, it was there that pregnant women were evacuated from the maternity hospital, which had been destroyed by the Russians on March 9. According to him, Neptune had both doctors and equipment.
How can you explain the attack on the Drama Theatre, when thousands of civilians were there, and the building had a large inscription “CHILDREN,” at the same time as hitting the pool?
The day before, on March 15, Ukrainian defenders killed another high-profile occupier, the commander of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division, Major General Oleg Mityaev. “Whoever comes to us with a sword will die by the sword!” wrote Azov Regiment that day in its Telegram channel, posting a photo of the dead occupier with his shoulder strap. You could also see that he had several icons in his helmet.
Could Russians be killing civilians to get back at the Ukrainian military? At that time, one major general of the Russian Federation, Deputy Commander of the 41st General Army Andrey Sukhovetsky had already died near Mariupol.
Ilia Samoilenko, an officer of the Azov Regiment’s intelligence department, said at an online press conference with Azovstal on May 8 that Azov fighters alone had killed about 2,500 Russian servicemen and wounded 5,000 invaders in Mariupol from February 24 to April 15, as well as destroyed more than 60 tanks and damaged another 30.
“It was probably revenge, they just don’t talk about it,” suggests Oleh Zhdanov. “They had to know that people were hiding in the Drama Theatre. But it’s quite possible they would do it. Think of the Moskva flagship. The next day after it drowned, 4 missiles were sent — one we shot down, and the 3 others hit the factory that produced Neptune missile warheads. They always take revenge, this is the psychology, ‘we were wronged, but we took revenge.’ This tradition dates back to Chechnya, where they took people hostage and then tortured them to death in revenge.”
The next day, on the evening of the 17th of March, Russians dropped a powerful air bomb on the famous volunteer centre Khalabuda (also known as the Eastern Gate).
Maksym Hrabovskyi, who was hiding right next to it in the basement, says that after that, 4-5 hours later, mortars began to work on those same coordinates, and in the morning they also found the remains of cluster bombs.
Shot of the truth
On March 20, Russian propaganda media reported that a Mariupol resident had said that the Drama Theatre and the Neptune swimming pool, as well as the entire city, had been destroyed by the Ukrainian military.
“According to available reliable data, the militants of the Azov nationalist battalion carried out a new bloody provocation by blowing up the theatre building they had mined, where the hostages could be held,” the Russian Defence Ministry lied once again.
In general, Russia built a whole web of lies around Azov. At the beginning of the war, the Putin regime promoted a story for the Russians that the Russian army, together with the people of Ukraine, was destroying mysterious insidious nationalists, who were the source of all the trouble. The Ukrainian army was almost helping in this matter. Instead, the Azov Regiment, as the main nationalists, took civilians hostage and did not allow them to leave their flats to hide behind them.
In the occupied areas of the city, they began to make videos where residents of Mariupol accused the Ukrainian military of shelling and aggressive behaviour.
“There may be several explanations for such footage. First, when a person is running during shelling, there are bombs falling everywhere, everything is burning, and then this person sees military, they may assume this is the military that were shooting,” says Maksym Hrabovskyi. “Especially if the person used to be pro-Russian, they would be more ready to believe it. There is another version, that these people are simply lying. But there is a third explanation. There was evidence that enemy troops captured a point where Ukrainian uniforms and some equipment were kept. We cannot rule out that in order to sabotage the Ukrainian military, some of the Russian ‘specialists’ changed into the uniform of the Ukrainian army to scare the locals, so that after some time a camera would pass through the area and record eyewitness accounts. This testimony was provided by people who lived in the Livoberezhnyi District and Skhidnyi District, where Russian troops entered first.”
We can remember the story how the NKVD came up with legendary mercenary groups whose participants wore the Ukrainian Insurgent Army insignia. It is possible that the descendants of the Bolshevik secret services may well use these methods today.
“Of course, if you needed a firing position or an observation post in a flat — the military came in,” says Maksym. For example, they went into the apartment of my acquaintance and politely said they needed it as an observation point, asking her whether she had friends or family she could stay with. She decided to stay in the flat for a while, and then she was taken where she asked.”
The Russians demolished house after house, quarter after quarter, regardless of whether there were civilians in them or not. Even when it was not necessary from a military point of view. For example, a tank goes around and shoots at all the houses in the neighbourhood. It only suspects that there may be a grenade launcher somewhere, so it shoots. Regardless of any civilians. The occupier’s boots stepped on the ruins, where there was no place for Ukraine’s defenders to hide.
After the capture of the city, thousands of Mariupol residents were forcibly deported to Russia. According to Oleh Zhdanov, this indicates that Putin is trying to play the Stalinist game of deportation. “He understands that if he does not deport most of the Ukrainians and put Russians in their places, there will be sabotage, and eventually, there may be an uprising. People are resettled in Russia. There is information that they are forced to sign documents that they will not return for at least 5 years.” There are also cases when people have been deceived by providing information that in Ukraine they are now going to be imprisoned for illegal border crossing.
Could the fighting be deliberately so brutal as to force people to leave the destroyed flats to scatter Ukrainians in this strategic area for the Kremlin — “the corridor to the Crimea?”
It may well be possible. Another option is that it was not-entirely-intended escalation as a revenge for the failures of the Russian army in Ukraine overall and in Mariupol in particular. Another version was that the killings of civilians were supposed to break the morale of Ukraine’s political leadership in order to force them to accept the capitulatory terms of the Putin regime. Or maybe Russians simply cannot fight in any other way. All these reasons may have well worked at once.
In any case, the decision to destroy such a large city could not have been made without the participation of Russia’s top leadership. And it seems that this is what distinguishes Mariupol from places like Bucha, or hundreds of similar crimes, each of which can be attributed to the perpetrators’ will. Here we are dealing with a military and political decision on mass murder.
“According to some information, at a meeting with Putin after the first days of the war, he said that he allows the military to disregard the loss of civilians,” said Oleh Zhdanov.
Another question that should be considered purely by experts who have all the information is whether Ukraine should not have withdrawn the Mariupol garrison before it came under heavy siege. According to a later statement by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the defence of Mariupol prevented the Russians from implementing a plan to quickly capture Zaporizhia, reach the administrative border of Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts, and enable surrounding of the JFO group.
The next act of Putin’s propaganda theatre should now be the “official trial of the Azov nationalists,” who allegedly destroyed Mariupol in revenge to the Russian-speaking city.
There is already information that deported Mariupol residents in Russia are being forced to testify that “nationalists shelled civilians.” This way, the Putin regime wants to kill not only Mariupol but also the truth about its own crime.
But this won’t happen. Hundreds of thousands of Mariupol residents remember what it was like when a Russian plane dropped a bomb on your house, says Maksym Hrabovskyi. “Russia is fooling itself. They think, we will organize good propaganda for ourselves and lie to the international community. We will prove that the crimes were committed not by us, but by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. And the occupied Mariupol is already targeted by major propaganda. There are cars with TV sets going around the destroyed city. There is no food or electricity in the city, you could say it stinks of death because of the unburied corpses lying under the rubble, and among them there are TVs on wheels with propaganda — it seems surreal. On the one hand, they are crazy, and on the other, they are stupid, because they do not understand they can no longer lie. But we need to realize that people in the occupied territories are somehow exposed to the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, when you get attached to the terrorist on whom your life depends.”
They are fooling themselves indeed. Russians have learned to use the total “doublethink,” when completely opposite things coexist, and they believe them in turns.
The defence of Mariupol, which lasted 86 days, almost three months, is a significant event in military history. According to some estimates, more than 150 defences have taken place in all the wars since 1900, and only 11 of them were relatively similar in complexity to the defences of Mariupol and lasted longer: When the garrison was under complete blockade, and hostilities were happening between two regular armies. In the case of Mariupol, the defenders, a separate Azov special unit, the 12th Brigade of the National Guard, the 36th Separate Marine Brigade of the Navy, border guards, police, volunteers, and the Mariupol Territorial Defence, defended themselves, while also helping, to the best of their ability, the residents of the city.
Maksym Hrabovskyi explains: “When we talked, they seemed like exhausted people, who tried to smile and, despite all the difficulty of the situation, show others that not all was lost, and they needed to believe in victory.”
Denys Samyhin, for the Centre for Strategic Communication