Shyrokyne: Strategic Asset, Political Symbol on Ukraine’s Azov Sea Coast

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 154

Ukrainian forces at Shyrokyne (Source: Kyiv Post)

The Contact Group on Ukraine (Minsk Group) has recently been debating a proposal to turn the Ukrainian stronghold Shyrokyne, key to defending the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol (Mariupil), into a “demilitarized zone.” The Contact Group—comprised of Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (“DPR, LPR”)—meets at fairly frequent, but irregular, intervals in Minsk.

If the proposal is approved, the village of Shyrokyne would become the first-ever demilitarized zone in the ongoing conflict, and potentially a precedent-setting case for more demilitarized zones to appear on Ukrainian territory. The Russian side and the OSCE are advancing this proposal within the Minsk Contact Group. In that forum’s most recent meetings, held on July 21 and August 3–4, the Ukrainian side expressed serious reservations about this proposal. Developments on the ground since then are adding to Kyiv’s misgivings about this idea (Belta, Interfax, Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, July 21, August 4; see EDM, August 13).

The proposed demilitarized zone (in Shyrokyne, or potentially elsewhere) is not to be confused with the safety zones already created by the Minsk armistice, nor with the buffer zone currently being proposed by the Russian side in the same Contact Group. The approved safety zones are defined by bans on heavy artillery and missile systems. The proposed buffer zones would be defined by bans on medium-caliber artillery, tanks and combat armored vehicles. (The labels “safety” and “buffer” are, to that extent, confusing.) Those zones extend geographically along the entire “contact line,” deeply on either side of that line (see EDM, August 13).

By contrast, a demilitarized zone in Shyrokyne would prohibit all types of weapons and all military personnel; it would be a purely local arrangement (potentially repeatable elsewhere, but on a local basis only); and it would be overseen by authorities of “both sides” (see accompanying article).

Shyrokyne, a fortified position defended by elite Ukrainian troops, forms the principal obstacle to a possible advance of Russian/“DPR” forces to the port city of Mariupol. That city represents a logistical and economic-industrial prize of first magnitude, a prime target of Russian/”DPR” forces in this war. The capture of Mariupol could render the “DPR” more sustainable.

Apart from its intrinsic value, Mariupol forms the entrance to the transport route that Russia seeks to open along the Ukrainian coast of the Azov Sea, from Russia’s border in Rostov oblast to the Russian-annexed Crimea. The overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Mariupol, however, has turned into a pro-Ukraine stronghold, administered by loyalist elements from the former Party of Regions (see EDM, September 8, 2014).

Shyrokyne is located 11 kilometers eastward of Mariupol’s city limit. Russian/”DPR” forces took up positions in Sakhanka, 7 kilometers northeastward of Shyrokyne, and even on the eastern side of Shyrokyne, in the wake of the Minsk Two armistice (February 2015). The Russian border is situated approximately 30 kilometers east of Shyrokyne. The coastal highway E58/M14 runs from the Russian border via Shyrokyne to Mariupol—the shortest, most direct potential invasion route. In this situation, civic groups in Mariupol and the local defense staff oppose demilitarizing—i.e., unilaterally evacuating—Shyrokyne.

“Demilitarizing” Shyrokyne would mean withdrawing Ukrainian forces from this key stronghold; a portentous unilateral concession. The Minsk Contact Group’s working group on security affairs has discussed this idea since April. The Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC, a group of Russian and Ukrainian senior military officers overseeing the ceasefire in the field, unrelated to the Minsk Group) became a party to this discussion from the outset. This format is designed to isolate Ukraine on multiple levels (see accompanying article).

Shyrokyne has become a national political symbol for its protracted defense by volunteer battalions, supported by civil society groups from throughout Ukraine, against daunting military odds. Russian forces had crossed the border into Ukraine in late August–early September 2014, overran most of the Novoazovsk district (between the border and Mariupol), and turned that territory over to the “DPR.” Shyrokyne or parts of it changed hands several times—a standoff that proved crucial to defending Mariupol. The January 24, 2015, artillery attack that killed 31 Mariupol civilians and wounded 120, came from Russian-controlled heights above Shyrokyne.

The Minsk armistice (February 12) placed Shyrokyne and Sakhanka (see above) on the Ukrainian side of the demarcation line; but Russian/proxy forces nevertheless seized both towns for springboards to Mariupol. The Ukrainians fought back and retook Shyrokyne (but not Sakhanka) within days—coinciding with the Russian capture of Debaltseve in another sector and another breach of the armistice.

The Ukrainian volunteer battalions Azov and Donbas defended Shyrokyne throughout this period, incurring severe casualties. Parts of Shyrokyne changed hands several times. Locally, the volunteer battalions forged close relations with civic, pro-Ukraine groups in the city of Mariupol. Since late July, however, the volunteer battalions have been replaced by a regiment-size marine infantry (Marines) unit of the Ukrainian Army. This switch reflects the Ukrainian military’s recently adopted general policy to redeploy volunteer units to the rear and place only regular troops along the frontlines.

Two Ukrainian Marines were reported killed in Shyrokyne on August 10–11, by “DPR” forces (Ukraiynska Pravda, UNIAN, August 12). Their gunfire attacks seemed coordinated with the “DPR’s” attempt to capture Starohnativka, a position that defends Mariupol from the north. Clearly, there can be no substitute for a Ukrainian military presence in Mariupol. And any Ukrainian decision to evacuate Shyrokyne under external political pressure could trigger an internal political backlash; which almost certainly fits into Moscow’s calculations.