MARIUPOL, Ukraine—We woke to the sound of shelling from the east, distant—almost like thunder but in quick, unrelenting bursts. It’s an accustomed sound here, but it carried fresh menace because Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said hours earlier that a full scale Russian invasion is imminent. And this coastal city could be the next big target.
But not yet.
Life in downtown Mariupol requires a partial state of suspended disbelief. Like any beach town, trendy bars, hotels and restaurants rest along the Sea of Azov. But here, every hour or so a freight train barrels through, cutting off the beach bars from the beach. The trains are loud, industrial and Soviet, but the locals are inured to them. In many ways, war here meets with the same numbed apathy, at least from those whose houses have not yet taken 122-millimeter artillery fire.
As former Estonian intelligence chief Eerik-Niiles Kross recently told The Daily Beast, “Simply put, Mariupol can turn into a war zone overnight.” The Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army regularly exchange artillery fire on the fringes of the city, decimating the small towns just to the east. That happens “about once every three to five days,” a local hotel receptionist tells us a bit reluctantly, not wanting to alarm the few remaining guests.
For these correspondents the early morning shelling is the sign of a war that we know is close and that seemed to have been following us since we arrived in Dnipropetrovsk the night before. On landing there we’d discovered all trains and buses to Mariupol were suspended indefinitely when rebels resumed the shelling of Shyrokyne, a small, embattled area ten kilometers up the road.
Inside of the Dnipropetrovsk airport, a representative from the car rental company emphatically warned us not to go Mariupol, and told us that all of his cars have GPS trackers and will shut off immediately upon approaching the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
Outside of the airport the standard post-Soviet taxi drivers descended upon us like flies. We stated our destination and all of them disappeared. A local airport employee waved a man over from the parking lot. We told him where we wanted to go. He nodded, sat down and lit a cigarette.
“Do you have an invitation?” he asked.
“Yes,” we lied.
He told us that it is very dangerous.
“Yes,” we said, “we know.”
He named a price far higher than the average monthly salary in Ukraine. We countered and he accepted.
The driver, we’ll call him Alexei, is fortyish with deep blue eyes and a large frame. He becomes animated when he speaks about his wife and his newly born daughter. After several hours of driving, small talk, and a lot of cigarettes, Alexei rolls up the windows and says, “Do you want to know the real truth about the war in Ukraine?”
“Yes,” we say, obviously.
He looks at each of us cautiously and says, “Ukraine was sold a long time ago. Everything that has happened was already predetermined.” Alexei continues to explain in a defeated manner that the purpose of this war is a kind theater hiding what is really just a financial transaction between oligarchs and politicians.
“So who sold Ukraine?” we ask.
“That ass Tymoshenko,” he replies. Everyone laughs, thinking of the billionaire former prime minister, Yulio Tymoshenko, who made herself famous in the West with her signature blond braids.
“So what is Tymoshenko doing now?”
Alexei gestures obscenely, a huge grin on his face. He does not like this politician who was swept into power during the Orange Revolution and then swept into prison by ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych, only to be released at the culmination of the Maidan Revolution last year.
As we drive into Mariupol at least two cities to the north and to the east are under attack. Marinka, Krasnogorovka and even sections of the Donetsk-Mariupol highway were the target, as our own Michael Weiss reported. We fear we will not be allowed into the city. There are four checkpoints. And we know that at the fourth and final one, they will vet us and our documents intensely. Alexei counts out loud and our adrenaline increases, as we pass through each point: “Raz [One]… Dva [Two]… Tri [Three]…”
At the fourth and final one, a heavily armed soldier asks for our passports. He studies them closely, yells something in Ukrainian to a soldier behind the barrier and hands back our documents. The soldier waves the car forward and wishes us “Good luck.”
“Wait… good luck through the checkpoint?” we ask Alexei.
“No, that was the checkpoint. Good luck in Mariupol,” Alexei says with a slightly ominous grin.
Yet as we drive into the city, it is not what we expect. There are taxis about. Restaurants and bars are open, though we can see no customers inside. We pass a man and woman riding bicycles, seemingly on vacation. The girl is laughing. Mariupol does not look like a warzone. Its people do not act as if they are under siege. Yet when the distant sound of artillery fire erupts at dawn, the sense of paradox sets in.
It all becomes surreal again the next morning when a wedding party steps onto our elevator. The radiant Ukrainian bride hangs back with her bridesmaids in the corridor, while the groom and best man ride down with us. The groom is nervous, but not about any war.
With a seaport, railroad junction and a highway straight to Donetsk, Mariupol is the strategic transit hub of the east. It is considered the key to Russia’s land bridge to Crimea, if there is to be one. With its iron and steelworks industry, it is a tactical crown jewel of the region and a would-be lynchpin of Russian President Vladmimir Putin’s Novorossiya crusade.
The Ukrainians have for all intents and purposes barricaded the city:
On the northern and eastern fronts and on the coast, where much of the shelling takes place, they’ve dug long trenches and put up barriers. To the west is the main highway with its multiple checkpoints. South along the Azov Sea at least two different beaches deemed vulnerable to Russian amphibious invasions have had naval mines placed offshore.
As we walk east toward the sound of the shelling from earlier in the morning, we pass not one but two different wedding parties. At the second, our bride and groom stand side by side exchanging vows under a tent sheltering them from the afternoon rain. With the ocean at their backs, their wedding photos will be picturesque after the clouds pass, as long as a train is not running by. In the photos the mines floating out in the harbor will not be visible.