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Mariupol has fallen to Russia. Here's what that means for Ukraine

A Russian serviceman patrols the destroyed part of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol on Wednesday.
Olga Maltseva
AFP via Getty Images
A Russian serviceman patrols the destroyed part of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol on Wednesday.

Updated May 19, 2022 at 15:05 PM ET

The Ukrainian city of Mariupol is now in Russian hands, after more than two months of bitter fighting and constant Russian shelling that destroyed massive swaths of the city and killed thousands of civilians, according to local officials.

Ukraine formally declared an end to its combat mission in Mariupol late Monday. Evacuations of Ukrainian soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant, Ukraine's last military holdout, began earlier that day.

The Russian Defense Ministry says more than 1,700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered since then, including dozens of wounded soldiers being treated at hospitals in the Donetsk region of Ukraine controlled by Russian and separatist forces. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it has registered hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers as prisoners of war.

It is unclear how many Ukrainian soldiers remain in Mariupol. "The evacuation mission continues, it is overseen by our military and intelligence. The most influential international mediators are involved," said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Wednesday.

Ukrainian officials said this week that they expect the evacuated soldiers to eventually be exchanged in prisoner of war swaps. But some Russian politicians have protested that idea, calling the Mariupol defenders "Nazi criminals."

The fight for Mariupol had been a source of morale for Ukrainians as a "David and Goliath story," said Rita Konaev, an expert on the Russian military at Georgetown University.

For months, Ukrainians had celebrated the small number of soldiers who managed to keep the city from falling into Russian hands, despite near-constant shelling and Russia's firepower advantage.

"The main goal was to hold back the enemy, and they did it as long as possible. Thank you to our heroes, our defenders, for holding the fort of Mariupol for such a long time," said Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko, speaking on Ukrainian TV Monday.

Why was Russia so focused on seizing Mariupol?

Mariupol is located between Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and the region of Eastern Ukraine called Donbas, much of which was already controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Most of the current fighting is taking place in the Donbas region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the "independence" of two enclaves there prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Those are the two areas — so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics — that have faced Russian aggression since 2014.

"Mariupol is right in between them. So taking Mariupol is part of the campaign in the south and the southeast to connect the Russian-held areas, essentially," said Konaev, who spoke to NPR in March.

The central district of Mariupol on Wednesday, two days after Ukraine says it ended its combat mission in the city.
Andrey Borodulin / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The central district of Mariupol on Wednesday, two days after Ukraine says it ended its combat mission in the city.

By controlling Mariupol, Russia has solidified its land bridge to Crimea and now controls the entire north shore of the Sea of Azov.

What could it mean for Ukraine that Mariupol is in Russian hands?

In the short term, the Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol had been cut off the rest of Ukraine's armed forces for months. Only a few thousand were estimated to be left in the city by the time they were backed up into Azovstal.

The country is pursuing the return of those soldiers via prisoner swaps. "I want to emphasize that Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive," Zelenskyy said earlier this week.

In the long term, Mariupol was an important economic center for Ukraine because of its status as a port city. In peacetime, it is a major site for exporting Ukrainian steel and grain.

That status has already been altered by war, Liam Collins, a retired colonel with U.S. Army Special Forces who has trained Ukrainian forces, told NPR in March. With Mariupol under siege, it's not able to currently produce for the war effort, he said.

The major impact would come if a negotiated settlement partitions off part of Ukraine, said Collins: "Ukraine's not going to want to do that after 2014 and 2015 [when Russia essentially took part of Eastern Ukraine], but it's always a possibility."

If Russia holds Mariupol for a long time, preventing Ukraine's access to the Sea of Azov, it will damage Ukraine's finances and economic sustainability, hindering the country's ability to sell and ship its products.

"It's part of a broader effort to effectively cut Ukraine off from access to the sea, which is a really important part of Ukrainian economy and trade," Konaev said.

What was the fighting there like, and how did it come to focus on a steel plant?

Mariupol has been a focus of the Russian military from the beginning of its invasion. Russian forces reached Mariupol just days after the invasion began on Feb. 24, and they encircled the city by early March.

Through weeks of intense street fighting and relentless shelling, Russia pushed Ukrainian forces farther and farther back until they were pinned inside the Azovstal plant, their backs to the coast, with nowhere else to retreat.

On April 21, Russian military officials declared victory in Mariupol after capturing the rest of the city.

The humanitarian situation inside the city, described to NPR by people who fled from March through May, was deplorable. Residents leaving Mariupol uniformly described a lack of access to food, water, heat or communications. Many sheltered in basements for weeks on end as shells and airstrikes landed around them constantly.

Some of the war's most shocking moments have occurred in Mariupol, including the destruction of a maternity hospital and a strike on the city's Drama Theater, where more than 1,000 civilians were sheltering.

As the fighting came to the steel plant, hundreds of civilians were sheltering in the plant's network of underground bunkers and tunnels that date back to the Soviet era. Many were evacuated earlier this month in convoys led by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations.

A Russian military vehicle painted with the letter Z drives past destroyed houses in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Wednesday.
Olga Maltseva / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A Russian military vehicle painted with the letter Z drives past destroyed houses in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Wednesday.

"The last few days we were there, I became convinced that the steel plant was going to collapse on us. How could it stand up to this kind of bombing?" said Alex Dybko, an English teacher who sheltered in the plant for weeks with his wife and son before evacuating to Zaporizhzhia this month.

What's next for Mariupol?

Local officials say more than 20,000 civilians have died in the city. The damage to the city has been massive. Ukrainian officials say about 100,000 civilians remain in Mariupol, which was home to about 430,000 residents before the war.

This week, Russia organized the first press tours for foreign journalists to visit the city. It has largely been unsafe for the media since the war began.

U.S. officials have said that they believe that Russia could be looking to annex the Donetsk and Luhansk areas of eastern Ukraine this month. Mariupol is part of the Donetsk oblast.

"We believe that the Kremlin may try to hold sham referenda to try to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy. This is straight out of the Kremlin's playbook," Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, told reporters earlier this month.

The U.S. and its allies recently said they will never recognize redrawn Ukrainian borders.

Copyright 2022 NPR

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.