Isolated by Ukraine’s war, Mariupol looks for a peaceful future

Why We Wrote This

For those living in the shadow of eastern Ukraine’s simmering civil war, the country’s recent elections were a chance to express their desire for peace. But in Mariupol, people are not waiting to plan a better future.

Fred Weir
Crane operators Andrei (left) and Vlad stand near a ship being loaded with plate steel in Mariupol Port last month. The port is handling about a third of its prewar level of shipping amid a slowdown in the Azov Sea and reduced cargo being sent out from Ukraine's restive east.

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With the front lines now just about seven miles from the city limits, the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine is seldom far from the subject of any conversation in the port city of Mariupol. But recently, the battleground has become ideological too. More than half of voters in the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region cast their ballots for two pro-Russian parties who blame Kiev, not next-door Russia, for their troubles. These divisions are a huge challenge for new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose party came in second in July elections around here.

The challenges facing the city are on full display at Mariupol’s Azov Sea port, which a decade ago shipped more than 15 million tons annually of products to every corner of the world. But the establishment of two separatist republics took much of the port’s hinterland away. The loss of the nearby Russian market amid an ongoing sanctions war between Ukraine and Russia inflicted more damage.

“We all hope that with the new leadership at the top of the country, this war will end,” says Yuri Balan, deputy director of the port. “Peace is the main thing that everyone here in the Donbass wants.”

For the past five years, Mariupol has been a battleground. First, it was in the most literal sense.

This industrial city of 450,000 on the Azov Sea has been the scene of pitched battles between Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels, who surround it on two sides with the front lines now just about seven miles from the city limits. Until a shaky July 21 cease-fire took hold, the sound of artillery fire was often audible in downtown Mariupol, and the ongoing war is seldom far from the subject of any conversation.

But more recently, the battleground has become ideological too. More than half of voters in the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region, of which Mariupol is now the biggest city, cast their ballots for two pro-Russian parties who favor the Moscow-authored road map to peace and blame Kiev, not next-door Russia, for their troubles.

The fact that these divisions are so open in war-clouded Mariupol is a stunning affirmation of Ukraine’s free and democratic political culture. But it’s also a caution against adopting any simplistic stereotypes about post-Maidan Ukraine. And it’s a huge challenge for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose Servant of the People party came in second in July 21 parliamentary elections around here – after the main pro-Russian one – largely, people say, on the strength of his pledge to find a new path to peace.

“We all hope that with the new leadership at the top of the country, this war will end,” says Yuri Balan, deputy director of the Mariupol Port. “Peace is the main thing that everyone here in the Donbass wants. We have a team of optimists here at the port, and we are building for that day.”

Karen Norris/Staff

Feeling beleaguered

Mariupol is an impoverished city that gives an overwhelming impression of long-standing physical decay. Its central economic engine is two smoke-belching Soviet-era steel plants, owned by the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, which have created one of the worst air- and water-pollution emergencies in Europe.

Indeed, a poll conducted by the local Reiting Group in May asked people to list their top five concerns. Surprisingly for a city on the edge of an active war zone, the “proximity of military actions” came fourth, with 39% mentioning it, after the rising cost of utilities (75%), air and water pollution (56%), and the cost of public transport (47%).

The war has isolated the city in ways that can only make people feel more beleaguered. Before a big chunk of the Donbass, including the biggest city of Donetsk, broke away to form the Russian-backed statelets of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic in 2014, Mariupol was an intimately connected part of that region. Before the war, a direct train ride to the capital city of Kiev, via Donetsk, took 12 hours. Today, the same trip takes 27 hours, with three changes along the way.

In the past, Mariupol International Airport saw flights to all points in Ukraine and beyond, to Russia, Turkey, and Europe. For five years, the airport has been closed due to its proximity to the front line. Anyone who wants to fly somewhere must drive at least four hours over bad roads to reach the nearest functioning airport, in Zaporizhia, about 170 miles away.

“We have a perfectly good airport, with working equipment, but we can’t use it,” says Sergei Orlov, Mariupol’s deputy mayor. “If we had peace, that could change almost immediately.”

A cutoff port

The challenges facing the city are on full display at Mariupol’s Azov Sea port, which a decade ago loaded more than 15 million tons annually of Donbass produce – steel, coal, grain, and sunflower oil – onto oceangoing ships headed to every corner of the world. The establishment of the two separatist republics took much of the port’s hinterland, with its huge industries, away. The loss of the nearby Russian market amid a still-escalating sanctions war between the two countries inflicted more losses.

But the most painful blow came last year, when Russia completed a bridge across the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway that connects the Azov Sea – and Mariupol – to the Black Sea. The bridge connects the annexed Crimean peninsula with the Russian mainland, and is a major strategic priority for Moscow. But the ensuing height restrictions immediately stopped most large oceangoing vessels, about 40% of the fleet that used to pull into Mariupol, from transiting between the two seas.

Further, a nasty sea battle between Russian and Ukrainian forces over the use of the strait last November led to the seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels along with their crews by Russia, and an enforced slowdown of all shipping headed for the Ukrainian Azov Sea ports.

Fred Weir
Mariupol beach, which has seen better days, is still frequented in very hot weather by people willing to brave the water – which even local authorities say is badly polluted by nearby steel plant and sewage outlets.

Mr. Balan, the port deputy director, says the facility handled just about 5 million tons of cargo last year, about a third of its prewar level. None of the 3,000-strong workforce have been fired, but everyone is working short weeks.

“Our view is that we need to use this crisis as an opportunity, to prepare ourselves for better times,” he says. They are building new terminals for handling steel and grain cargoes, and modernizing the old Soviet-era infrastructure and loading methods. “Wars always end. When this one does, we will be ready.”

“There are things we can do to improve life”

Indeed, Mariupol is a place of burgeoning hope, where at least some optimistic and innovative people are treating their crisis as an opportunity to change their conditions for the better.

The approach at Mariupol’s largely youthful city administration is to leave the big questions of war and peace to national leaders, and to attempt to find innovative solutions to the city’s long-standing local problems, most of which predate the war and will remain even if peace breaks out tomorrow.

“Of course the war affects people here in Donetsk far more than in Kiev or other western cities,” says Mr. Orlov. “Peace would be a huge boon to this city, and we all pray for it. But meanwhile there are things we can do to improve life for people here, tackle local issues that have simmered for a long time, and try to position ourselves for a better life when peace does come. All wars end, eventually.”

Mariupol has been the recipient of quite a lot of foreign aid in the past few years. Modern trolleybuses plying the city’s streets all carry a notice saying they were purchased with funds donated by the European Union. The U.S. Agency for International Development runs two big projects here, one to promote democratic governance and another to stimulate small and medium businesses. There is a small but vibrant civil society, where mostly young people try to make a difference in ecology, culture, and art.

Mr. Orlov says the hope is to transform Mariupol into “the showcase for the revived Ukrainian Donbass” to inspire the population to see their future as part of a Western-oriented Ukraine. He even likens it to West Berlin, which stood as an example, in the heart of East Germany, during the long and bitter years of the Cold War.

“Conditions are really harsh in Mariupol,” says Peter Santenello, an American independent videographer who recently lived in the city, mostly mixing with youthful activists. But “the young people are like diamonds. Some of those who’ve stayed have been through it all and come out the other side, stronger and full of life.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Mr. Santenello's name.

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