On April 3, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin — upon winning the war Syria while protecting his beleaguered client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from a rebel uprising supported by the U.S. and Sunni Gulf states — had some more good news. US President Donald J. Trump had given instructions to the American military to begin planning for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Although the official decision was announced only on December 21, the Kremlin evidently gambled that Trump might be serious about the withdrawal.
It was only on November 25, 2018 that the West awakened to a new and potentially unsettling threat to world peace, this time in the Sea of Azov. Putin, who had largely frozen his war there in 2015, was now defrosting it. There had been no serious response from the West.
The Russian Navy attacked three Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov that were heading in the direction of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. A Russian coast guard vessel rammed a Ukrainian navy tugboat, several sailors were injured, and 24 were taken prisoner. The sailors are still awaiting trial.
Some history is in order. After a blood-soaked revolution in Kiev, Ukraine, in February 2014, Putin immediately retaliated by invading the Crimea, with soldiers in unmarked green uniforms, who widely became known as his “little green men.”
Putin’s Crimean invasion had been preceded by skirmishes in January 2014 between Russian separatists and Ukrainians in both Mariupol, the largest port on the Azov Sea, and Odessa, the largest Ukrainian port on the Black Sea. The Crimean invasion, however, became synchronized during the following weeks with a violent new kind of hybrid war, in which the Russian used proxies — separatists, “volunteers,” Cossacks and eventually Chechens — in the three east Ukrainian industrial cities of Donetsk and Lugansk and Mariupol.
On May 2, 2014, Odessa saw lethal street fighting, and people died in a burning building. A few months later, in early 2015, Russian proxies killed 30 people and injured 128 in a rocket attack on Mariupol.
Although Putin has not articulated the final objective of his proxy war in eastern Ukraine, his actions seem to indicate that he is determined to create a land bridge from Mariupol to Odessa — two major seaports vitally important to Ukraine’s economy. Putin’s overall strategy in Ukraine, also not publicly stated, seems to be to strangle it economically by disrupting shipping between the Odessa and Azov Sea ports, with the aim of eventually subjugating Ukraine to Russia.
All at once, in early 2015, Putin appears to have frozen his conflict in eastern Ukraine and instead began deploying some of his proxy units to Syria. His seeming objectives, besides rescuing his beleaguered client, Assad, appeared to be saving and enlarging Russia’s naval base, Tartus, on the Mediterranean, and its airbase at Latakia, as well as planning for future oil and gas pipelines through Syria.
If you happen to find yourself interviewing residents in Mariupol, you will find many reluctant to discuss the war — a response not surprising in a city where at least a third of the population are Russian-speakers or Russians. Some simply say they wish there would be no war.
At the table next to ours in a café sat a man with a grim, round, face. Someone’s bodyguard? A sergeant? He never spoke, but attentively followed our conversation with a younger man, who said he was a captain in the Ukrainian army. Had he just happened to join our table, or was he following us?
The captain explained that joining the army had been the turning point of his life. As a student at Taras Shevchenko University in 2014, he had witnessed the ousting of Ukraine’s former, corrupt, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, by a popular uprising in Kiev. The huge crowd, he recalled, had been peacefully demonstrating against their president’s economic tilt towards Russia’s Customs Union rather than toward a more lucrative alliance with the EU. Suddenly, Yanukovych’s paramilitary police had fired into the crowd. Dozens were killed or injured that day and in later days. The crowd armed itself and fought back. These deaths were followed by more. Yanukovych was quickly run out of town and took refuge in Russia.
The captain, after seeing some of his friends die, said he had decided to become a military officer, not a professor. “The popular revolution against a corrupt leader in Venezuela,” he noted, “is similar to what happened in Ukraine”.
In response to Putin’s aggressions, President Trump last year thankfully called for “providing lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military” in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles, which were delivered last April. The captain said the Javelins had helped to created “a huge psychological effect” on Russia’s tank crews, who were now afraid to approach positions they had approached with ease in the past.
A few days later, we rode in a taxi through Mariupol, a drab, poor, city with stained nondescript buildings and bleak, skeletal trees. Passing through the heart of its huge industrial complex, we saw dark factory buildings, railway cars full of coal, and tall smoke stacks belching smoke and fumes into the air.
This huge complex, the taxi driver said, was Systems Capital Management (SCM), a holding company with more than a hundred different enterprises, founded, owned and controlled by one man, Rinat Akhmetov. A Tartar Sunni Muslim and the richest man in Ukraine, he had worked closely with Yanukovych and the American lobbyist, Paul Manafort, in 2006-2014.
Akhmetov, as a member of parliament in Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, had held separatist sympathies. With the fall of Yanukovych, however, and trying to fight off rumors of criminal connections, Akhmetov did an about-face. He declared himself a proponent of reconciliation with Russia and opened a humanitarian center to help victims of the war. When the Russians massacred a few dozen Mariupol civilians, the driver pointed out, they did not attack Akhmetov’s enterprise. It appears that Putin has his eyes set on acquiring the most important steelworks in Ukraine — intact.
In December 2018, the taxi driver continued, some children of Mariupol were featured in a video in which they pled with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Akhmetov to limit the plants’ emissions: “Petro Alekseyevich, I want to live,” they had said, and, “Please stop slowly killing me.” Akhmetov, however, seemed to have been more interested in building ball parks and buying the most expensive penthouse in London.
Although we were unable to visit the Port of Mariupol due to security restrictions, we found, sitting on a bench near the port, a husky Ukrainian man with a tattoo between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. “It’s the symbol of the Ukrainian fleet,” he said.
The man said he is a Ukrainian sailor, and that he had been on one of the first ships the Russians had let pass on November 25 before they attacked the others. The Russians, he said, had completed in August the Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia and the Crimea over the Kerch Strait — a bottleneck between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
Because the bridge is only 115 feet high, tall Ukrainian ships are unable to pass under it. The purpose of the bridge, he added, had also been to strangle Mariupol economically. Since it had been built, “production in the shipyard was down 40%.”
It seems that last year, the Russians had become worried about the Ukrainians building new navy facilities at the Azov Port of Berdansk, with some help from the US and NATO.
In addition, Ukrainian Navy intelligence has apparently concluded that the Kerch Strait bridge, which connects the Russian Federation to the Crimea, might not even hold up for more than a few years due to seismic conditions underwater. “If Putin wants to do something about Mariupol,” the man said, “he has only a short time in which to do it. We have a small navy. We hope your country [America] will give us more ships to defend the port.”
In a village northeast of Mariupol, our driver pointed to a cemetery. There, on February 2, he said, Russian separatists had fired on a minibus containing mourners. Fortunately, no one had been killed or injured, but many Ukrainians had been shocked at a Russian assault on civilians.
Finally at the front, whatever weapons needed to be hidden were already camouflaged. Were some of them the Javelin missiles? It would have been improper to ask. After a tour, we asked the platoon leader if we could take a picture with him. “Not here,” he said. He led us to a stony building, put on a black mask and we took the picture. “This time,” he said, “if the Russians come, we are not going to let them through. We would rather die.”