Vadym Boychenko, mayor of Mariupol, at his office at the city hall in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, January 12, 2022.
Christophe Occhicone | Bloomberg | Getty Images
WASHINGTON — The exiled Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol has pledged to rebuild his decimated former city as he marks a year since it fell to Russian occupying forces.
The seaside town, whose steel industry was once an economic powerhouse for the nation, saw its last Ukrainian forces withdraw from it a year ago on Saturday, after nearly three months of intense fighting.
But Vadym Boychenko is not discouraged. And he has a multi-billion dollar plan to bring his city back to life, if the Russians are driven out.
“We are working hard to prepare the necessary recovery plans and strategies so that when the city is liberated, we are fully prepared and waste no time,” the mayor, who now lives elsewhere in Ukraine, told CNBC. “Now is the time when we have to prepare as effectively as possible for our return to Mariupol,” he added. CNBC spoke to Boychenko in April and May for this story.
Boychenko, 45, was under no illusions, however, as he detailed the immense destruction in Mariupol and the financial obstacles Ukraine faces as Russia’s war enters its 500th day.
“Mariupol is one of the most destroyed cities in Ukraine today. Occupation forces have damaged more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure,” he said. The strategic port city suffered more brutality from Russian forces in two months than it did in the two years under Nazi occupation during World War II, the mayor added.
Russian servicemen work to clear the territory of the Azovstal steel plant during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, May 22, 2022.
Alexander Ermoshenko | Reuters
Mariupol was once home to nearly half a million people. Now its population has been reduced to around 100,000, although Boychenko adds that the current figure is difficult to assess due to a lack of reports in the city.
He left Mariupol two days after Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border in what became the largest air, land and sea assault in Europe since World War II.
As Russian shelling intensified across the city, Boychenko learned that his grandmother had taken refuge alongside pregnant women and families with young children in the halls of the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre.
On March 16, 2022, the Theater Royal in the city center became the site of one of the deadliest known attacks against civilians since the start of the war. Boychenko’s grandmother did not survive her injuries sustained in the airstrike.
The attack on the theater came a week after Russian bombs destroyed a children’s hospital and a maternity hospital in Mariupol. The shelling and images of bloodied pregnant women being evacuated from the rubble sparked an international outcry.
A view shows the construction of a theater destroyed during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 10, 2022. Picture taken with a drone.
Pavel Klimov | Reuters
Boychenko said Russian indiscriminate shelling damaged nearly 20 hospitals, more than 60 schools and nearly 90 cultural sites in Mariupol.
He said high-rise residential buildings in Mariupol suffered the most damage, with more than 50% of structures flattened by Russian shelling. If proven, what he claims could constitute war crimes under international humanitarian law.
“The situation with basic life support systems is difficult, there is almost no water, gas or electricity supply,” he said, adding that restoring the city’s critical infrastructure is its first priority and is expected to take about two years.
Russia has previously said its forces in Ukraine did not target civilians or civilian infrastructure and that attacks on theaters and maternity hospitals were staged.
An aerial view taken on April 12, 2022 shows the city of Mariupol, during the Russian military invasion launched on Ukraine.
Andrei Borodulin | AFP | Getty Images
Despite early Russian advances in the war, Ukraine recaptured large swaths of territory, pushing back opposition forces in many places with the help of Western money and weaponry. Ukraine is also planning a new offensive to further repel invading Kremlin forces.
The successes of the Ukrainian army have given officials hope that they will be able to return to the now occupied areas if the Russians are driven out.
Boychenko’s plan, nicknamed “Mariupol reborn“, consists of two stages: the rapid restoration of critical infrastructure, followed by reconstruction and revitalization projects for the city.
The resumption of basic services like water supply, electricity and the reopening of hospitals are some of the immediate concerns that will be addressed in the first phase. He estimates that Ukraine will need about $378 million in investments for the first stage.
Boychenko said the second phase of the project is expected to cost around $15.6 billion, but adds that the figure is based on preliminary estimates.
“Together with our international partners and the World Bank, we will assess the extent of the destruction and record the damage to Mariupol,” he said, adding that the current price is only an estimate.
In March, the Ukrainian government, the World Bank Group, the European Commission and the United Nations the cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction projects at 411 billion dollars. The group said the main needs mainly relate to the reconstruction of transport infrastructure, housing and energy systems.
Before Russia’s invasion last February, Mariupol was affectionately known as the mighty Ukrainian city with a fierce heart of steel.
“It was a powerful industrial and commercial center with two large metallurgical enterprises and a seaport,” Boychenko said when asked about the city’s contribution to Kiev’s economy before the war.
A local resident reacts as he speaks outside a building heavily damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, April 18, 2022.
Alexander Ermoshenko | Reuters
“Mariupol produces about 12 million tons of steel per year, which is 4.5% of Ukraine’s gross domestic product and 7% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings,” he said, adding that the industry Mariupol steelworks has created around 50,000 jobs.
AT almost 70 billion dollarsUkraine’s exports in 2021 were driven by its agricultural sector and the country’s metal industry.
The port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, one of the busiest shipping lanes in Ukraine, responsible for the export of agricultural products, coal and steel, serves both industries.
Olena Lennon, a professor in the Department of National Security at the University of New Haven, said one of Russia’s main objectives in taking Mariupol was to block access to the port in an effort to further degrade the Ukrainian economy.
“The Sea of Azov port in Mariupol is one of Ukraine’s main ports for industrial and agricultural products,” Lennon told CNBC.
“By denying Ukraine access to the port, the Russians were not only trying to prevent Ukraine from being a prosperous state, but also denying it the ability to sustain its economy in times of war,” said Lennon, from the city of Donetsk in southeastern Ukraine.
She added that while Mariupol’s coastline on the Sea of Azov is strategic, the once industrious seaside town has also become a “poster” of Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression since 2014.
“Mariupol resisted this occupation and became a symbol of Ukrainian patriotism in a sea of what was seen as pro-Russian influence,” Lennon said, explaining that Russian forces were keen to level the city despite having had to rebuild parts of it later.
“It was never about controlling these cities to create a different life or to maintain the infrastructure. It’s about undermining Ukrainian sovereignty and undermining the Ukrainian state,” she said. “There is no respect for the people.”