But experts say capturing the city, while achieving a strategic goal, is now much more about giving Russian President Vladimir Putin something significant to show for an invasion that has so far failed to achieve its major objectives.
“Putin desperately needs a victory,” said retired Canadian Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson, now a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“The pressure is on to give him a victory somewhere, and it seems that Mariupol is where he will get it, even if it results in the complete destruction of the city.”
Russia said on Wednesday more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines, among the last defenders holed up in the Azovstal industrial district of the city, had surrendered, though Ukraine did not confirm that.
Mariupol has been reduced to “ashes,” according to Ukrainian officials. Satellite images and photos taken on the ground show most infrastructure has been destroyed by constant Russian shelling and missile attacks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Wednesday that Russia was ramping up efforts in the south and east — suggesting Mariupol remains a key target after nearly seven weeks of fighting.
Why does Russia want Mariupol?
Mariupol, home to more than 400,000 people before the war, is the biggest Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov and the main port serving the industries and agriculture of eastern Ukraine. It is also the site of some of Ukraine’s biggest metals plants.
It was also the largest city still held by Ukrainian authorities in the two eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively as the Donbass, where pro-Russia separatists have spent years fighting for control. Putin recognized those provinces as independent just days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Capturing Mariupol would give Russia full control of the Sea of Azov coast, as well as a secure overland bridge linking mainland Russia and pro-Russian separatist territory in the east with the Crimea peninsula that Moscow seized and annexed in 2014.
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That bridge would unite Russian forces on two of the main axes of the invasion, and free them up to join an expected new offensive against the main Ukrainian force in the east — potentially allowing the Russians to attack from two directions.
Thompson says Russia already has a connection established between the mainland and the easternmost point of Crimea. Although it allows Russian forces to approach from the south, that bridge is longer and less secure than one between Russia and Mariupol would be.
Taking the city now — after already blocking Ukrainian access to the Port of Mariupol and occupying the surrounding area for weeks — would be largely symbolic, he adds.
“It’s definitely linked to Putin having a checklist that he can show to his people and say, look at what we have accomplished,” he said.
“It may still prove to be useful to the Russians … but at this point, it’s not critical to Ukraine’s operation, even though that hasn’t stopped them from fighting for control.”
What's happening now?
Mariupol has been the site of some of the worst atrocities documented since the invasion began, including the bombing of a maternity and children’s hospital and a theatre being used to shelter women and children.
The city’s mayor has estimated more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. Over 100,000 residents remain in the city, but they have been cut off from supplies, aid and even basic utilities like water and heat.
Daily attempts to send convoys to bring in aid and evacuate civilians have failed throughout the siege, with Ukraine blaming Russia for looting shipments and refusing to let buses pass through the blockade. Moscow said Ukraine was to blame for failing to observe ceasefires.
On Wednesday, Russia’s defence ministry said in addition to the mass surrenders by soldiers from Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, the Port of Mariupol was fully under Russian control.
That came a day after intense fighting was reported at the Ilyich metal plant in the city’s north, which Russia has since claimed control of as well.
On Monday, a post on the brigade’s Facebook page had said the unit was preparing for a final battle in Mariupol that would end in death or capture as its troops had run out of ammunition.
Some Ukrainian officials said at the time that the post may have been fake. Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak tweeted that the city’s defenders were short of supplies but were “fighting under the bombs for each meter of the city.”
Thompson says it’s possible Mariupol will fall in the coming days, “depending on how much determination the Russians have in ferreting out the remaining elements” in the city.
If that happens, he says Ukraine could try to take the city back, but may have to hold off until Russian forces are pushed back elsewhere.
“That would have to be a longer-term goal, because the weapons Ukraine has are mostly defensive,” he said. “They would need other resources if they were to switch to offensive (posture).
“(The remaining civilians) is a consideration too, because of course, the Russians have had no compunction is using them as human shields.”
Moscow has denied targeting civilians and blames Ukraine for their deaths, accusing Kyiv of staging events like the hospital and theatre bombings in Mariupol.
— with files from Reuters and the Associated Press