Analysis |

After Fall of Mariupol, the Most Important Battle Is Not in Ukraine's East

The Russia-Ukraine war is now one of small victories and small setbacks that don’t change the big picture

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A Ukrainian soldier standing before a destroyed bridge, north of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier standing before a destroyed bridge, north of Kharkiv, Ukraine.Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Just after noon on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted on social media a video in which he personally congratulated the soldiers of the 127th Battalion who that morning had placed a border post, painted in the national blue-and-yellow colors, at the Russia-Ukraine border, north of Kharkiv. Zelenskyy was beaming as he hugged his chair for joy. It wasn’t a victory of particularly strategic importance. The Ukrainians had managed to prevent the Russians encircling Kharkiv over a month ago. The battalion had advanced just a few kilometers, but it was a highly symbolic moment, in which the Ukrainian army had proven that it had removed the Russian threat from the country’s second-largest city.

Only a few hours later, just after midnight, Zelenskyy was on air again. This time there were no smiles. He sat stern-faced behind his desk. After 82 days of nonstop fighting in which a city of 400,000 residents was bombed into the ground, the last defenders of Mariupol had been given the order to lay down their arms.

This wasn’t a strategic event either. The Russians have controlled nearly the entire city and with it the strategic coast of the Sea of Azov for over a month. The soldiers still holding out from the tunnels beneath the Azovstal industrial complex were fighting a lost battle.

“We need the heroes of Azovstal alive,” Zelenskyy told the nation, adding that getting them out would still take “diplomacy.” Senior Ukrainian officials said they had received assurances from the Russians that the Mariupol defenders, over 2,000 soldiers, would be released as part of a prisoner exchange but the Russians didn’t confirm this, at least not publicly. Meanwhile, dozens of wounded prisoners were taken to a hospital in the pro-Russian separatist area while there is no confirmation of the location of those who emerged unscathed. A convoy of Russian Prison Service vans was seen in the region and could have been transporting them to Russia. Meanwhile, Russian politicians have been calling to put those among them who fought in the ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion on trial for war crimes.

The fall of Mariupol, an enclave deep within Russian-controlled territory, was inevitable. In the last few weeks, after the Russians had finished destroying most of the city and pushing the defenders back into the factories, there was no longer much military value for Ukraine in keeping up the fight, as they no longer were tying down major Russian forces. But Mariupol and Azovstal have become national symbols and the government was concerned over public reaction to giving the surrender order. That may be why Zelenskyy waited to announce it until after announcing a small victory on the Kharkiv front.

The Azovstal steel plant on Saturday.Credit: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/ REUTERS

Not that finally conquering Mariupol is much of an achievement for the Russians. It took them nearly 12 weeks and overpowering artillery barrages and airstrikes to do so. They were in control of the coast already and if they hope to resume production in the steel plants, they will need to spend many millions on repairs and find a skilled workforce to replace the tens of thousands of civilians who are reported to have died, and the hundreds of thousands who fled the city.

This is now the routine of the Russia-Ukraine war: small-scale victories and symbolic setbacks that don’t change the overall picture on the battlefield. Four weeks have passed since the Russians announced the start of the “second phase” of their “special military operation,” focusing mainly on the Donbas region in the east. But with the exception of a few isolated sections on the front lines, where they’ve advanced a few dozen kilometers of ground that they hold precariously, they are still far from their main military objective – to encircle the Ukrainian “Joint Forces Operation” military group that has been fighting in the east basically since the previous invasion in 2014.

Nor are the Ukrainians much closer to their big counteroffensive despite much talk of counterattacks. They’ve regained ground around Kharkiv and toward Kherson, but those are relatively small operations that exploited Russian weakness. The new armored division, which will make use of captured Russian tanks and those supplied by the West, is still being equipped and trained. After beating back the Russian armored columns, the Ukrainians are fully aware of the limitations of tank warfare and will not rush to commit a new large force of their own before it’s fully prepared and the Russians, they hope, have been further exhausted.

The most significant battle currently going on may not even be in the east, where both sides have now concentrated most of their forces, but around a small island in the Black Sea. Snake Island was captured by the Russian cruiser Moskva at the start of the war. Moskva is now at the bottom of the sea and the Russians are finding it very difficult to resupply and reinforce their presence on the tiny island. Russian convoys to the island are met with missile fire and air attacks.

Smoke rising from Snake Island following a Russian attack earlier this month.Credit: PLANET LABS PBC/ REUTERS

Snake Island is barely a square quarter-kilometer of rock, but if the Russians manage to station missile batteries there, they will have a key stronghold that will allow them to dominate the skies over southern Ukraine and enforce the naval blockade, which is preventing Ukraine from shipping its industrial and agricultural exports to the world. If Ukraine can recapture the island, it will influence the quiet talk in Washington and European capitals about the possibility of a NATO operation to restore freedom of shipping through the Black Sea.

Many parts of Ukraine, including most of the main cities, are returning to “near normal” despite the war, but the total air and sea blockade continues to paralyze its economy. Most of the airports have been bombed anyway and no one is predicting the renewal of air travel at this point, but reopening the sea lanes is more urgent.

In a week it will be three months since the Russian invasion began. Few expected Ukraine to survive this long, let alone push the Russians back from around Kyiv and now Kharkiv, but no one can predict now when this war will end. The Russians are already digging trenches and preparing defensive lines around the areas they have managed to occupy, and maintaining the blockade.

On Saturday night there was another celebration for the Ukrainians when the band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest. But the real victory will only come if next year Ukraine, as winners, can host the contest themselves. For now that seems inconceivable.

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