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With Ukraine cease-fire at stake, eyes turn to Mariupol (+video)

Kiev claims the Ukrainian port is next on the list of targets for Russia-backed rebels, who argue they have no plans to attack the city. Mariupol's fate could determine whether the country's tenuous cease-fire holds.

Mariupol, a grimy steel center and strategic port of 500,000, is not the sort of place that generally demands worldwide attention.

But the city, which straddles the main road between Russia and the recently-annexed territory of Crimea, is now the subject of international focus as the possible new main front of fighting in Ukraine. Mariupol's fate in coming weeks may well determine whether all-out war will engulf eastern Ukraine, or a tenuous ceasefire agreed this month in Minsk might just take hold.

Foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, meeting in Paris Tuesday, said that the ceasefire regime is largely intact and that conditions had "improved significantly" along the front line that snakes about 300 miles through Ukraine's eastern Donbass region. But the cease-fire's status is hotly contested by the Ukrainian government and the rebels.

Kiev claims that rebel forces are massing outside Mariupol, backed by Russian troops, and will soon move to seize the city. Ukrainian analysts say the rebels covet the port, which would give them an outlet to the sea, and the capture of the Donetsk region's second largest city would be another huge psychological boost for the separatist movement after its victory over the Ukrainian Army in Debaltseve last week. 

"After the Minsk agreement was signed, there has been no ceasefire. Ukrainian troops were forced to retreat from our own territory," says Olexiy Melnik, a military expert with the independent Razumkov Center in Kiev. "Mariupol is as important as any Ukrainian city. And we've seen that once Putin decided that Debaltseve was important, it was seized. So we know what to expect next."

Ukrainian media has been full of reports about rebel manpower and equipment moving toward Mariupol in recent days.

But the rebels deny any intention to attack the city, one of the original hotbeds of their revolt against Kiev's authority last year. They say Debaltseve was an exception because Ukrainian forces there were completely surrounded before the Minsk ceasefire came into effect. French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sponsored the deal, appear to have tacitly accepted that.

Rebel leaders in Donetsk insist that they've begun the pullback of heavy weaponry mandated by the Minsk accords, and at least one exchange of prisoners was conducted over the weekend. They held a festive military parade in Donetsk Monday, to mark the Soviet-era "Defenders of the Fatherland" holiday – which is treated something like Father's Day in Russia, and to hail their victory in Debaltseve.

"Things really are quieter and calmer here. There's more order, and clearly more support for [rebel] authorities in Donetsk," Dmitry Posrednikov, deputy dean of Donetsk University said by phone Tuesday. "There's almost no shooting going on for the past couple of days, and that's good. We're sick and tired of the war."

Stakes in Mariupol

An attack on Mariupol would likely have immediate repercussions in the West. For one thing, experts say, the US debate about arming Ukraine – on hold while the ceasefire continues – would probably resume with greater urgency. For another, a fresh round of tough sanctions against Russia would become almost inevitable.

"I don't consider an attack on Mariupol very likely at this point, but it would certainly change the whole discussion about Minsk as the road to peace," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "What Moscow wants at this point is to freeze the conflict, and wait for changes in Kiev. Nobody really wants a bigger war."

Were Mariupol to become a battleground, the city presents several complicating factors. Its primary garrison is the Azov Battalion, a private militia that fights for Kiev but has attracted intense notoriety for its use of the Nazi wolfsangel as its symbol and the outspoken neo-fascist views of many of the volunteers who fill out its ranks.

And while no one is sure about the sympathies of the local population, analysts in Kiev say there are growing fears that the rebels are preparing underground units in cities throughout eastern Ukraine, including Mariupol, to rise up and strike from the rear when an appropriate moment comes. A weekend bombing that killed two people at a pro-Kiev rally in eastern Ukraine's biggest city, Kharkiv, has further stoked such fears.

"Our forces in Mariupol will fight to the last man. But we only expect the worst," says Alexei Kolomyets, head of the independent Center for European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev.

Cease-fire's next steps

If the Minsk deal goes forward, the vaguely worded political steps it mandates could lead to the reincorporation of Donbass into Ukraine, albeit with sweeping autonomy.

The agreement says that Kiev must restore public services and pension payments to the region, which were cut off last November, and allow elections that might produce legitimate leaders that the government could bargain with. A constitutional reform process, carried out in consultation with rebel leaders, should happen before year's end. Only after a new constitution is adopted would Ukraine regain control over the stretches of border now controlled by the rebels.

Few people expect any of that to happen. Mr. Strokan says Russia will keep piling on the pressure in other areas in hopes that the Kiev government will collapse, creating a whole new set of opportunities. Indeed, on Tuesday the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom accused Kiev of not paying and threatened to cut gas supplies within two days.

And Mr. Kolomyets says the political mood in Kiev is indeed grim, especially after the debacle at Debaltseve. He blames President Petro Poroshenko for making a "worthless" deal at Minsk, and then giving up Ukrainian territory to the rebels.

"There is a widespread feeling that our forces at Debaltseve were abandoned by the political leadership. Things here are very vulnerable. One more bad shock to our political system – like losing Mariupol – and there can be a collapse."

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