For two weeks, as bombs and artillery rained down on the beleaguered Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, Natalia Kharabuga huddled in a basement with her two daughters and 100 others.
All they could do was sit and listen as their neighborhoods were destroyed under near-constant bombardment.
Some of those sheltering with Kharabuga grabbed shovels in case the whole building collapsed and they had to frantically dig people up.
There was no heat. No electricity. No water.
When Kharabuga and others were forced out of the basement to try to find water, she saw a city in ruins, surrounded by death.
“Everything was set on fire… there were bodies everywhere,” the 42-year-old told CBC News in Riga, Latvia, where she arrived earlier this month after a harrowing 11-day trip out of town. Ukraine.
Kharabuga spoke on Thursday, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on state television for a successful military operation, saying Mariupol had been “liberated”.
“It’s tyranny,” Kharabuga said in response. “What is he congratulating him on? There’s nothing left.”
Destruction of Mariupol
A city of 400,000 inhabitants on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol is strategically important. The week-long bombardment was devastating and killed thousands.
Images on social media show Russian flags, as well as flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic being hoisted in the city, while others show Russian-aligned Chechen fighters celebrating in front of the rubble.
After weeks of mounting losses and slow progress in capturing Ukrainian territory, Russia is keen to declare a military victory. Today, as its troops surround Mariupol, there is growing talk of Russia’s goal of taking the southern coast of Ukraine to create a land bridge to Crimea.
The Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, is connected to the country by a bridge over the Kerch Strait. If Russia controlled the Ukrainian coastline, Crimea would be connected to the territories that Russian-backed forces occupy in eastern Ukraine.
On Friday, the commander of the Central Military District of Russia, Rustam Minnekaev, confirmed this. Minnekaev was quoted in state media claiming that one of Russia’s goals is to establish full control over Donbass and southern Ukraine in order to create a land corridor to Crimea.
Minnekaev said this would not only give Russia influence over Ukraine’s economy, but also give the military the opportunity to gain access to the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria. Minnekaev said Russian speakers were oppressed there.
His comments, which were made at a Russian defense meeting, followed a statement by a Russian State Duma deputy. On Thursday, Oleg Morozov told state television that the Russian operation in Mariupol had achieved a “long-awaited goal”. He said the port was now liberated and there would be a land route to Crimea.
WATCH | Putin claims Mariupol is ‘liberated’ as Ukrainians continue to fight:
“Republics friendly to Russia”
In the state-run Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, columnist Mikhail Rostovsky predicted what might happen next, saying southern Ukraine could be “cut off from referendums” to create a “belt of people’s republics friendly to Moscow”.
The people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk were created in 2014 when Russian-backed forces seized large swaths of eastern Ukraine and helped install local governments. No country in the world, apart from Russia, recognizes these regions as independent states.
Since then, several hundred thousand residents of these regions have received Russian passports.
Parts of Mariupol saw heavy fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militia in 2014. Ukraine briefly lost control of the city, before retaking it.
The city contains some of Ukraine’s largest metallurgical plants, including the Azovstal steelworks, where Ukraine says several hundred fighters, along with up to 1,000 civilians, are entrenched and surrounded by Russian forces .
In a televised meeting on Thursday, Putin ordered his defense minister to “cancel” a plan to storm the huge factory and its vast maze of tunnels because it would unnecessarily risk the lives of servicemen.
Instead, he said the area should be blocked off, so even a fly couldn’t get out.
Pavel Luzin, a St. Petersburg-based political analyst, said Putin’s messages were aimed at both international and domestic audiences. He thinks Putin was trying to convince people that he is not a “cruel, mad maniac”, but also that he alone is in control.
Luzin says he can’t begin to speculate what’s going on in Putin’s mind because he’s not a “psychotherapist”. But he thinks that in the short term, Russia needs to create some kind of stability, because its military forces are depleted and by mid-May soldiers will need to be replaced.
He dismisses talk of Russia needing to secure some sort of military victory by May 9, when the country celebrates its annual Victory Day, to mark the military’s achievements during World War II. world. A parade bringing together 11,000 soldiers is planned.
Luzin says there doesn’t have to be tangible progress in Ukraine because the Kremlin, which essentially wiped out all independent media in Russia, controls the narrative and can spin the situation as it pleases.
The life of a refugee
Natalia Kharabuga says that as a Russian-speaker in Mariupol she never felt any oppression from Ukrainians, a frequent assertion by the Kremlin.
She admits she’s not a political analyst, but thinks Russia is right after the earth.
Speaking with CBC, Kharabuga was clearly traumatized and struggling to think about her family’s next destination.
The five-story building in which she lived was destroyed. The entrance collapsed, then the whole structure caught fire.
She thinks back to her neighborhood, where children walked to school and played in flowery courtyards.
“[The Russians] I just got there and blew it all up and trashed it,” she said. “How am I going to get back there?”
Luzin says his heart is broken by what is happening in Ukraine, admitting there are strong family ties.
His grandfather was born in Lviv, Ukraine, but his family was forcibly moved to Perm, Russia, when he was 11 years old because some of his relatives had been involved with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in the 1940s. The UPA was a paramilitary and nationalist organization that primarily fought Soviet and Polish forces during World War II and at times allied with the Nazis.
Some of Luzin’s relatives were sent to gulags.
He fears that the war in Ukraine will last for years and will take place in periods of intense fighting and relative calm.
Putin may say his goal is to eradicate Ukrainian Nazis, but Luzin thinks he wants all of Ukraine, at all costs.
“The Kremlin is currently going to take a desert, a devastated city [Mariupol]“, he said. “The plan is the same as in 2014: a political objective to destroy the Ukrainian state.”