Pro-Russian separatist leader Denis Pushilin, the head of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), has ordered the formation of a city administration for the southeastern port hub of Mariupol, according to Russian state news outlet TASS.
The order was part of a document reportedly published Thursday on the DPR’s website. According to TASS, Pushilin also conveyed instructions related to the city’s administration and staffing, including the appointment of new district heads. Pushilin said earlier this week on Russian state television that “about 140,000” residents have left Mariupol for Russia or the DPR.
Mariupol has been besieged by Russian forces for the past month. The city has long since been cut off from water, electricity, and heating, triggering one of the war’s starkest humanitarian catastrophes. Large areas of Mariupol have been all but leveled by Russian shelling and airstrikes. Moreover, local pro-government officials say that 5,000 people have been killed since the start of the siege and 160,000 civilians remain trapped in the city without access to basic necessities. Officials say as many as 290,000 civilians had fled Mariupol as of March 27.
Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, appeared to acknowledge earlier this week that Mariupol has fallen under Russian control. "Not everything is in our power," he said. "Unfortunately, we are in the hands of the occupiers today."
Russian and Russian-aligned separatist forces reportedly stormed Mariupol last week after the city’s defenders rejected an ultimatum to lay down their arms in exchange for safe passage out of the city. Though it is difficult to verify the situation on the ground, a growing number of reports suggest that Russian forces have seized control of almost the entire city after several days of fierce urban combat and are now clearing out the last pockets of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol’s southernmost district.
Pushilin announced on Tuesday that the DPR will consider formally becoming part of Russia once it controls the entire Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. “As for joining the Russian Federation, as for the wish and aspiration, they have been clearly traced since 2014 - the desire to be in Russia,” he said, according to a local news network. “But now the main task is to reach the constitutional borders of the republic. Then we will determine that.” If the DPR is absorbed into Russia, Mariupol would likely fall under direct Russian control.
Pushilin’s statement follows shortly on the heels of an announcement by Leonid Pasechnik, head of the nearby pro-Russian Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), that the LPR plans to organize a referendum in the “near future” on joining the Russian Federation. Ukrainian officials have rejected the legitimacy of any referendums held on Russian-occupied or Russian-aligned territories. "All fake referendums in the temporarily occupied territories are null and void and will have no legal validity," Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko told Reuters.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.