UNDER SIEGE

02.09.15 10:55 AM ET

Is This The Next Big Battle of the Ukraine War?

Western leaders are trying to negotiate a political solution to the war in Ukraine, but Mariupol, which stands between Russia and Crimea, has to be ready for the worst.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine—“Where are the sirens? I asked for five sirens but I can only see that there are two available,” the mayor of Mariupol told an emergency meeting in city hall on Saturday. Yuri Khotlubey’s city is under siege, facing what could be the biggest and most important battle of the war in Ukraine, and he’s trying desperately to piece together civil defense operations to save as many of Mariupol’s 460,000 residents as he can. “Please search for more sirens around non-functioning factories,” he said. Very few factories in the city are in operation anymore. “We need to build up our emergency systems,” he said.

Khotlubey had opened the emergency meeting at city hall by announcing yet another attack by Russian-backed rebel forces. That morning a shell had hit the patio of a private house in the village of Gnutovo on the outskirts of Mariupol, killing 54-year-old Alexander Kolanda. The mayor requested a moment of silence in his memory.

There have been many of those.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

A woman walks past street vendors at a residential sector affected by shelling in Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov, eastern Ukraine February 3, 2015. Mariupol's city administration said the rebels had killed at least 30 people and injured 83 others by firing rockets from long-range GRAD missile systems on January 24.

Khotlubey described his city to The Daily Beast as an “undefeated fortress,” with thousands of Ukrainian forces based in the Mariupol airport and checkpoints on every road heading into town.

Sadly, those checkpoints haven’t stopped the artillery. On Jan. 24, shells and rocket shrapnel killed or wounded more than 100 people, damaged 75 multistory buildings, destroyed 243 private homes, and hit three schools and two kindergartens, in addition to burning the market and an entire parking lot of vehicles in the Vostochny district. Of the more than 30 people killed in the last two weeks, nine were children.

But the city is learning how to survive in wartime. Its strategic location leaves its residents no other choice. Mariupol is a significant port on the north coast of the Sea of Azov, but much more important, it sits astride the key land route from Russia to Crimea, which Moscow annexed almost a year ago. Unless that land corridor is opened in the south of the heavily contested Donetsk region, Russia has to supply Crimea by air and sea.

So there is little doubt a fight is coming. The question is when, and how ferocious it will be. The slaughter of Jan. 24 felt like a taste of what is to come.

Mariupol offered a brief military training exercise for its population: A vehicle drove around Vostochny, the district facing the front line, warning people that a Grad rocket attack was imminent. Pedestrians immediately dove to the ground, terrified.

But the city has not despaired, not yet. On Friday night, visitors were partying and dancing at the Old Beacon bar and restaurant on the beach. Both of Mariupol’s biggest employers, the Azovstal and Ilich steelworks, are still operating and providing support for areas affected by the fighting.

A boy jumps over a puddle near Soviet-era hammer and sickle sculptures at a residential sector affected by shelling in Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov, eastern Ukraine February 3, 2015. Mariupol's city administration said the rebels had killed at least 30 people and injured 83 others by firing rockets from long-range GRAD missile systems on January 24. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich  (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR4O2DS

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Every day, volunteers, municipal social workers, and private and state businesses coordinate to distribute building materials for destroyed homes, bring people plastic and plywood to fix broken windows, or simply deliver food and clothing for families who have lost everything.

And while world leaders gathered in Munich on Saturday to discuss the prospects of a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, Mariupol made its own preparations at the meeting with the mayor in city hall. State administrators and civil society groups pulled together to help their city, struggling to survive on the front line.

There was a lot of bitterness and criticism over Kiev’s lack of support. “Mariupol feels abandoned by the authorities. One thing nobody here can understand is why neither President Petro Poroshenko nor Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk has visited this city since last September, just to comfort our citizens, give us hope,” said Petr Andryushenko, leader of the volunteer initiative Together.

Pro-Russian forces were less than 16 miles from the Vostochny district, home to almost 30,000 people, the mayor said.

“When I became mayor 17 years ago, I could never have imagined that our brother nation, Russia, could undertake an intervention of such direct aggression, shell our cities, schools full of children, in some hybrid war against Ukraine,” Khotlubey told The Daily Beast, referring to the brutal mix of information war, subversion, and insurgency that has become characteristic of Russia’s tactics in this fight.

Nobody in Mariupol wants the city to get involved in a bigger and more destructive war between the West and Russia, but neither is there much hope that the ongoing peace talks involving Moscow, Kiev, and the Europeans, set to continue this week, will bear much fruit.

And the threat to Mariupol is not just from the outside. According to recent polls, about 30 percent of Mariupol’s population has pro-Russian separatist sympathies, and 60 percent more are essentially undecided.

“The situation is more than serious,” said Konstantin Batozsky, an adviser to former Donetsk governor Sergei Taruta. “If Mariupol falls and Russia’s forces complete the corridor to Crimea, annexing the entire Donetsk region in the process, Ukrainians would demand that their leaders explain why as many as 6,000 civilians and soldiers died in this war."

“All of Ukraine should wake up and support Mariupol today,” Batozsky added.