New Russia attack fears add to economic woes in Ukraine’s frontline port

Eight-year war disrupts shipping and deepens poverty in strategic Mariupol

Volodya waits in the slush-filled forecourt of Mariupol station for passengers arriving on the overnight train from Kyiv. His taxi has just one working headlight, its seatbelts are jammed, and its wipers only smear the fat, wet flakes of falling snow across the grimy windscreen.

“At least the heater’s working,” Volodya mutters as he grinds the gears and weaves off through this hardscrabble Ukrainian port on the Azov Sea.

“I’ve been in the car for three hours and you’re only my second fare,” he says between expletives. “So I’ve made about 100 hryvnia [€3.10]. My pension and other benefits add up to 3,600 [€112.30] a month, and my rent is 2,700 [€84.25]. So I only have a little bit to spend on food – just enough not to starve to death, basically.”

Volodya has spent all his life in Mariupol, working in jobs linked to the port and the huge, smoke-belching metals plant that dominates the city, but he waves away questions about fears of a new attack from Russia – which lies 60km to the east through territory held since 2014 by Moscow-led separatists.

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“That doesn’t interest me,” he says. “Tell me when wages and pensions are going up and prices for food and petrol and household bills are coming down. These prices are going to kill me before any war.”

Russia's eight-year undeclared war against Ukraine has killed 14,000 people in the eastern area known as Donbas, placed much of the nation's industrial and mining heartland in the hands of Moscow's proxy militia, and created fear and instability that starves government-controlled cities such as Mariupol of investment.

Now, with 100,000 Russian troops and heavy weapons massed within striking distance of his country, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is trying to rally western support and accelerate weapons deliveries from his allies, while averting the kind of alarm that could wreck the nation's fragile economy and currency.

Kyiv has taken measures to fight inflation and support the hryvnia, and Zelenskiy urged western leaders to tone down talk of an imminent all-out war that might cause “panic” and help Russia stoke social unrest in a country where the average monthly wage is only about €500.

Since Ukraine ousted its then Kremlin-backed leaders in the 2014 Maidan revolution, Russia has used an array of tactics against its pro-western governments, from annexing Crimea and waging proxy war in Donbas to deploying disinformation and propaganda and launching cyber and economic attacks.

Financial losses

In the Sea of Azov, Russia now routinely impedes commercial shipping going in and out of Mariupol, subjecting cargo vessels to long inspections and holding frequent military drills in the adjacent Black Sea, where in 2018 Russian border forces fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval ships and their crew near Crimea.

"Every delay means financial losses, so due to problems caused by the Russian Federation some firms decide not to use Mariupol to ship metals or grain and instead go elsewhere," says parliamentary deputy Dmytro Lubinets.

"The conflict makes investors wary of coming to the area and makes some people want to leave. But it's not just Mariupol or the [partly militia-held] Donetsk and Luhansk regions – the whole country is economically damaged by this."

His office in the city of 500,000 people is close to the burned-out and bullet-scarred shell of Mariupol’s former police headquarters, which was gutted during deadly fighting between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia groups in spring 2014.

For several weeks it was unclear whether the port would go the same way as areas to the east and north-east that were seized by Russian operatives and local opponents of the Maidan revolution, who announced the creation of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (known as DNR and LNR).

“I was in Donetsk then and saw some of my police colleagues switch sides and break their oath to Ukraine,” says Vyacheslav, an officer in Mariupol’s criminal investigation department whose parents still live in the militia-controlled city.

“There’s no way I can go back there now – they see me as a traitor to Donetsk – and my parents haven’t been able to come here since most of the crossing points were closed due to the pandemic,” he explains.

“I’m not afraid of a major attack now. Ukraine’s armed forces are far stronger than they were and thanks to our foreign friends we are much better armed too. And Mariupol is better protected and more stable; if there are still pro-Russian elements in the city then they are lying low and are much weaker than before.”

Russian speakers

After the violent chaos of spring 2014, Mariupol suffered one of the worst single attacks of the war in January 2015, when missiles fired from DNR hit a suburb of the city and killed at least 30 civilians; it happened a week after a dozen people had died 60km to the north, when a rocket hit a bus in Volnovakha, Lubinets's hometown.

He says that in 2014 the “vast majority” of people in Mariupol and in Donetsk region were – like him – Russian-speakers who wanted to live in an independent Ukraine, but he acknowledges that there “were some who supported Russia”.

“Nevertheless, very few wanted Donetsk region to break away and join Russia. There were those who said we should find a compromise with Russia. But since then, Russia has done everything to make that position as unpopular as possible,” he adds.

“Many people wanted good relations with Russia until the war began ... It was a close neighbour, linked by 300 years of history and shared victories and defeats,” Lubinets explains.

“But if a neighbour comes to you and brazenly steals a room of your home and says, ‘This is mine now and I’m the boss’, then who wants to live with that kind of neighbour? No one. And that’s why we have bad relations now.”

The deputy also argues that Mariupol’s residents – for all their economic difficulties – feel lucky to have escaped the fate of people living in Donetsk and Luhansk, cities that are now deeply isolated and impoverished and run by militants chosen by Moscow.

“People there [in DNR and LNR] who were pro-Russian are disappointed that they haven’t been incorporated into Russia. And those who were always pro-Ukraine knew from the start that those areas would just become a ‘hole’,” he says.

"Russia doesn't need those people or that territory; Russia wants to block Ukraine's entry to Nato and the EU. I think that's understood now ... and if we were allowed in we could reintegrate those people very quickly– I'm certain of it."

Outside world

Others are not so sure that Kyiv’s leaders would have the ability – or the desire – to reincorporate the ravaged region and its three million residents, after they have been subjected to eight years of war and constant anti-Ukraine propaganda.

"There are no new voters for them in Donbas, but only voters for the opposition," says Enrique Menendes, who ran an advertising agency and then an NGO in Donetsk until the militants expelled him and his colleagues in 2016.

"And they see they will have to deal with some sort of Russian enclave which will ruin all the mainstream political thoughts, for example our course of integration to the West, to Nato and the European Union. "

Russia is increasingly the main link to the outside world for residents of militia-held areas, and it has given passports to more than 700,000 of them – which Kyiv fears the Kremlin could use to create a pretext for a new attack, by claiming a need to defend these new Russian citizens from danger.

“A lot of people there are beginning to orient towards Russia ... and identify themselves more and more with Russia,” says Menendes, who urges Kyiv to find a middle ground between the current official trade blockade with breakaway areas and normal commercial ties that would be unacceptable to many Ukrainians.

“I think the connection between people will stay alive for generations, or at least 20 or 30 years. But there needs to be economic connectivity too,” he adds. “People need money and jobs.”