MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Volunteer battalions outside Mariupol retreated Thursday after shelling and mortar fire hit positions just outside the city. As evening fell, the staccato thunder of Grad missiles could be heard close enough so the noise rumbled through the center of town.
All this ratcheted up fears that a much-anticipated Russian-backed assault on this strategic industrial port is now underway—and indeed it might be. But the sleight-of-hand war being waged here in eastern Ukraine, and exploited so effectively by Russian President Vladimir Putin, can sometimes make it hard to distinguish feints from offensives.
Mariupol has been on edge since pro-Russian troops seized the border town of Novoazovsk near the Russian border last week, prompting international denunciations of a Russian “invasion,” said Kiev, or “incursion,” said Washington. Much of the NATO summit in Wales on Thursday was consumed with talk about how best to deter Russia from further aggressions by imposing new sanctions.
The attack comes after what seemed an agreement by Russian President Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko earlier this week to work on a ceasefire. Some analysts suspected that Putin was just playing for time, but Poroshenko reportedly expected to declare a ceasefire on Friday.
It is no longer clear that the ceasefire can go forward, with reports now multiplying that the separatist rebels and their Russian backers have moved out of Novoazovsk and are rolling toward Mariupol, which stands between them and a land bridge to the Russian-annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
At Mariupol’s Eastern checkpoint around 5 p.m., scores of haggard soldiers from volunteer battalions walked back into the city as puffs of black smoke rose behind them.
“We want to stop them [the Russians] here, we can’t lose our city, Mariupol,” said Dmytro Lynko a commander of the Shakhtar volunteer battalion. “It’s the last big city in Donbass [eastern Ukraine] that is ours.” Soldiers said they were attacked with artillery, tanks, mortars and Grad missiles. But “our generals will do everything possible to stop the Russian army,” Lynko said.
Seizing Mariupol would be a major blow to Ukraine, which had been winning the war in the east in recent months.
One soldier from the Azov Battalion, a volunteer brigade, said it was attacked in Vynohradne, a suburb adjacent to the city.
Fellow volunteers helped a wounded soldier from the Azov Batallion climb out of a car at a Ukraine National Guard checkpoint. He stood on one leg and led a cheer of “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the heroes,” and then, “Azov! Azov! Azov!” A Ukrainian translator from Kiev said the soldier spoke with a Swedish accent. There are volunteers of several stripes on both sides of this fight.
Sergii Taruta, Ukraine’s governor of the embattled Donetsk region, said that there had been no retreat.
“We have enough power to protect the city,” Taruta said. “We know that within 10 kilometers there is the enemy, but we won’t let any terrorists invade Mariupol.”
Taruta said that two groups attacked Ukrainian positions and the attack was met by regular Ukrainian army, the National Guard, and volunteer battalions. He said the Ukrainians destroyed two enemy tanks.
Meanwhile, long lines formed outside ATM machines as nervous residents tried to withdraw money before it ran out—something residents said has happened before at moments of panic.
As the fighting came to the edge of the city, a previously planned peace rally went ahead anyway. Thousands cheered for Ukrainian unity and heroism as the blue-and-yellow flags of their country flapped in the late summer sun.
One woman speaking at the rally appealed to the mothers of Russian soldiers to bring their boys home and tell them not to fight. “People of Russian, we are peaceful and we do not want war,” she said. “We are Ukrainians and we are united.”
Divisions, however, are visible in the city. In the past month or so, blue-and-yellow billboards proclaiming Ukrainian unity and that Mariupol is Ukrainian went up around the city. Vandals have defaced them with red paint splotches that look like bullet holes oozing with blood.