The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine’s Mariupol is under siege. It’s a wartime tactic Putin knows too well.

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For nearly three weeks, Russian forces have besieged and shelled the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a strategic port on the Sea of Azov, with devastating results.

Local officials say that thousands have been killed, while reports suggest Russian troops are now engaged in street-to-street fighting in the seaside hub. On Monday, Ukrainian forces rejected an ultimatum from Moscow to surrender and evacuate the city, whose prewar population numbered about 430,000.

The battle there is taking place largely under a communications blackout, with only sporadic electricity, Internet and phone service. The last international journalists reporting from Mariupol, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka of the Associated Press, left the city last week after Ukrainian forces told them they were being targeted by the Russians.

Accounts from residents who have left the city suggest enormous destruction.

“It’s like a horror movie. There’s nothing,” a woman named Oksana who fled Mariupol told my colleagues Loveday Morris and Anastacia Galouchka in Zaporizhzhia, a city roughly 140 miles to the northwest. “Everything is bombed, all the roads are bombed.”

“What I saw, I hope no one will ever see,” Manolis Androulakis, Greece’s consul general in the city, said as he returned home to Athens on Sunday. Androulakis was the last European Union diplomat in Mariupol until he fled Tuesday. It took him another four days to leave Ukraine itself, before reaching Romania through Moldova, Reuters reported.

“Mariupol will become part of a list of cities that were completely destroyed by war; I don’t need to name them — they are Guernica, Coventry, Aleppo, Grozny, Leningrad,” Androulakis told reporters.

What is happening in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city under Russian siege?

Of that list, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows several of the cities all too well. Under his watch, Russian forces led sieges of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1999, as well as Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, in 2016. In both cases, the result was the near-total destruction of historic centers.

Putin was prime minister during the siege of Grozny, which began in October 1999 as Russian forces surrounded the capital. Chechnya had fought off a Russian invasion only five years before, but this time the breakaway republic was submitted to ferocious artillery attacks and airstrikes.

By the time Russian forces took the city in February 2000, the city was decimated. The Washington Post described it as “World War II-like destruction, as tanks and armored vehicles rolled down streets lined with blasted and burned-out buildings. Houses were battered into misshapen hulks and roads were deserted.”

The United Nations later said Grozny was the most destroyed city on Earth, while estimates of the deaths ran well into the thousands. Putin, meanwhile, had ascended to the Kremlin, the home of the Russian presidency.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the specter of Grozny has loomed. On Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC he thought Putin had “decided to double down and try to ‘Groznify’ the great cities of Ukraine.”

A decade and a half later, Aleppo would suffer a similar fate as the Chechen capital. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian military might, encircled the city to flush out armed rebels opposed to his rule. Survivors of the Aleppo siege recall the trauma not only associated with the bombing and shelling, but also with the severe lack of food and other basic supplies.

When the Associated Press recently interviewed a refugee from Aleppo and asked about Mariupol, she gave simple advice to the Ukrainians: “I would advise them to stock up on food.”

In Chechnya and Syria, Russia resorted to unleashing indiscriminate destruction after facing a military stalemate. It would be a hollow victory if a victory at all. In Ukraine, any hopes Putin may have held that the invasion would be swift have been dashed by fierce local resistance and his military’s poor preparedness.

Putin himself grew up under the shadow of a siege. In 1941, invading forces from Nazi Germany surrounded Putin’s hometown of Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — after the Red Army refused to abandon the city.

The siege lasted 872 days and cost an estimated 1 million lives. Soviet forces eventually broke through Nazi lines to allow supplies into the city, Russia’s former imperial capital.

Putin was born in Leningrad after the siege in 1952, but lost an older brother, Viktor, who died as an infant during the blockade. According to an official interview with Putin first published in 2000, his brother died of diphtheria after being evacuated to a shelter set up for children. His mother almost suffered a similar fate.

“Once my mother fainted from hunger. People thought she had died, and they laid her out with the corpses. Luckily Mama woke up in time and started moaning. By some miracle, she lived,” Putin said, according to an English translation of the interviews later published as a book.

Eighty years later, Russia is increasingly using missiles and artillery to inflict maximum destruction in what analysts say is an attempt to compel Ukrainian authorities to surrender key cities. In Mariupol, Ukrainian authorities have accused Russia of targeting an art school and a theater where hundreds of families were sheltering, while persistent street-to-street fighting has hampered rescue efforts.

If Putin learned the horror of siege tactics growing up in Leningrad, he learned the effectiveness of that horror in Grozny, Aleppo — and perhaps now Mariupol.

This report has been updated.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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