The ongoing Ukrainian defense of Mariupol, a port town of some 400,000 Ukraine citizens, is an epic feat of arms. As surrender for the besieged Ukraine garrison looms, Russia has a choice of ending the siege with honor or with horror. A chivalrous finish, with Russia extending a grudging fig leaf to the gallant defenders, might serve as a foundation for a future peace agreement.
The unready garrison at Mariupol was encircled by Russian forces on March 2, and the siege has now continued for 11 weeks. Under constant attack and with little hope of resupply, the longevity of Mariupol’s heroic defense is unprecedented in modern warfare, and the garrison’s endurance speaks to what a motivated force can do in defending a modern city.
Today, some 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers are still fighting, barricaded in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works. While reports from the embattled garrison are fleeting, the conditions are, no doubt, grim, as the defenders expect no quarter from the invading Russians.
Sadly, wider appreciation of the Mariupol fighters may only come long after the conflict ends.
With little modern precedent, the Ukrainians this looming defeat into an epic victory.
The garrison has already held out longer against Russian invaders than Chechen forces, who, in turn, used the twin Russian sieges of the Chechen capital of Grozny to build a fearsome reputation as tough fighters. But the Mariupol garrison has held out for far longer than the Chechens. In the last Russian siege of Grozny, the well-prepared Chechen defenders lasted little more than a month under a close blockade before collapsing into a tawdry, demoralized rabble.
Ukraine’s incredible defensive achievement at Mariupol has yet to really rub off onto the rest of Ukraine’s fighting force. And that, sadly, is something of a mistake. Mariupol shows what good people can do when facing desperate odds. And while the surrender of Mariupol may just be a matter of hours away, the Ukrainian soldiers who fought there should be celebrated for their achievement.
Even in defeat, the defenders have won a great victory.
They’ve Held Out Longer Than Anyone:
Sieges are difficult things to compare. Each one is unique. But of all the closely held battlefield sieges, where the besieged are under constant assault, almost entirely cut off from re-enforcement and resupply, few have held out longer than the scratch force at Mariupol.
Sieges are grim things. As ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies run short, the combined threat of boredom, terror, and depression erode the will to resist. Wounded and shell-shocked defenders, joined by an inevitable contingent of malingerers, hide out in the safe areas, eroding unit cohesion. With no sewage or water, conditions get ugly quickly. As food and ammunition disappear, defense becomes a heart-wrenching, desperate effort at cobbling together decaying resources against an unrelenting assault.
There is common ground in this defensive effort. Both Russia and Ukraine celebrate far less heroic standoffs. As Germany surged across Russia in the early months of World War II, the “Hero Fortress” of Brest lasted only 22 days under Nazi assault. In the darkest days of 1941, Kyiv collapsed after a month-long encirclement. The city of Odessa, surrounded, survived for just over two months. Though their defensive contributions fail to match Mariupol, Kyiv and Odessa are, today, extolled as “Hero Cities” for their role in resisting the Axis invasion.
There may have been longer modern sieges. In Vietnam, during the siege of Dien Bien Phu, where elite French paratroopers and other allies, deployed far behind Vietnamese lines, the defenders managed to survive for 24 weeks. But once Vietnamese forces began a full-scale assault, largely cutting off any potential for resupply, the French forces in the besieged Dien Bien Phu outposts crumbled in about two months, far faster than the cobbled-together Mariupol garrison.
Recognize Mariupol’s Impending Defeat Is A Big Victory
The stubborn defense of Mariupol has inflicted disproportionate costs upon the Russian invasion force.
On a tactical level, Ukrainian fighters sapped the Russian Army, denying Russia use of the strategic port, tying down and destroying Russian forces that were needed elsewhere. By refusing Russian President Vladimir Putin an easy victory in a key city, the ongoing defense made a mockery of Russia’s hurried attempts to annex Eastern Ukraine.
The Mariupol fighters have achieved much. If battlefield chivalry still existed, Russian leaders would recognize the garrison’s immense professional achievement by treating the wounded and allowing the remaining fighters to surrender with honor, paroling them to a neutral country. Honorable treatment of fighters that, through their gutsy efforts, exceeded the performance of both Ukraine and Russia’s honored World War II-era ancestors, might offer a first fragile foundation for a respectful resolution.
Late-breaking developments suggest that the Russian invaders may rise to the occasion and offer the Ukraine defenders an honorable way out.
But horror is far more likely. In reality, the ultimate fate of such stubborn defenders is often very dark. In the Philippines, the desperate 1942 battle to defend the Bataan Peninsula lasted three months, with American and Philippine forces fighting with little rest and resupply. After the surrender, the victorious Japanese subjected the garrison to a sixty-mile march into captivity, in what became known as the infamous Bataan Death March.
After the war, several Japanese battlefield commanders were tried for their role in the Bataan atrocity and were sentenced to death. It is up to the Russian battlefield commanders to determine if they wish to seek a more honorable path or to meet a similarly grim post-war fate.