Vadym Boychenko, Mayor of Mariupol, in his office in Mariupol City Hall, Ukraine, on Wednesday, January 12, 2022.
Christopher Occhicone | Bloomberg | Getty Images
WASHINGTON – The exiled Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol has vowed to rebuild his decimated former city to mark the 1st anniversary of its capture by Russian occupying forces.
The coastal city, whose steel industry was once an economic engine of the country, saw the last Ukrainian forces withdraw a year ago on Saturday after nearly three months of intense fighting.
But Vadym Boychenko is undeterred. 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 plans and recovery strategies so that when we liberate the city we are well prepared and don’t waste time,” the mayor, who now lives elsewhere in Ukraine, told CNBC. “This is the moment when we need to prepare for our return to Mariupol as efficiently as possible,” he added. CNBC spoke to Boychenko for this story in April and May.
“This is the moment when we need to prepare for our return to Mariupol as efficiently as possible,” he added.
Boychenko, 45, was under no illusions, however, as he described the immense destruction in Mariupol and the financial hurdles Ukraine is facing as the war against Russia enters its 500th day.
“Today Mariupol is one of the most devastated cities in Ukraine. The occupying forces damaged more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure,” he said. The mayor added that the strategic port city had seen more brutality from Russian forces in two months than it had in two years under Nazi occupation during World War II.
Russian military personnel work to clear mines at the site of the Azovstal Steel Plant during the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, May 22, 2022.
Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters
Mariupol was once home to nearly half a million people. The population has since dwindled to around 100,000, but Boychenko adds that the current number is difficult to estimate due to a lack of reporting in the city.
He left Mariupol two days after Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine in what became the largest air, land and sea raid in Europe since World War II.
As the Russian bombing intensified across the city, Boychenko learned that his grandmother, along with pregnant women and families with small children, took refuge in the halls of the Donetsk Regional Academic Theater.
On March 16, 2022, the Royal Theater in the city center was the scene of one of the deadliest known attacks on civilians since the beginning 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 and maternity hospital in Mariupol. The bombings and images of bloodied pregnant women being evacuated from the rubble sparked an international outcry.
A view shows the building of a theater destroyed in the course of 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 indiscriminate Russian shelling damaged nearly 20 hospitals, more than 60 schools and nearly 90 cultural sites in Mariupol.
He said the high-rise apartment buildings in Mariupol suffered the most damage, with more than 50% of the buildings leveled by Russian shelling. If proven, his allegations 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,” he said, adding that restoring the city’s critical infrastructure is his top priority and is expected to take about two years.
Russia has previously said its forces in Ukraine are not targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure and that the attacks on the theater and maternity hospital were staged.
An aerial photo taken on April 12, 2022 shows the city of Mariupol during the Russian military invasion of Ukraine.
Andrey Borodulin | AFP | Getty Images
Despite Russia’s early advances in the war, Ukraine recaptured large areas and, in many places, repelled opposition forces with the help of Western funds and weapons. Ukraine is also reportedly planning a new offensive to further push back the Kremlin’s invading forces.
The achievements of Ukraine’s military give officials hope they can return to the now-occupied territories if the Russians are driven out.
Boychenko’s plan, titled “Mariupol Reborn,” consists of two phases: rapid restoration of critical infrastructure, followed by reconstruction and urban renewal projects.
The resumption of basic services such as 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 phase.
Boychenko said the second phase of the project is expected to cost about $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 inflicted on Mariupol,” he said, adding that the current price is only an estimate.
In March, the government of Ukraine, the World Bank Group, the European Commission and the United Nations put the cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction projects at $411 billion. The group said the greatest needs are primarily to rebuild transport infrastructure, housing and energy systems.
Before the Russian invasion last February, Mariupol was affectionately known as the mighty Ukrainian city with a fierce heart of steel.
“It was a strong industrial and business center with two big metallurgical companies and a seaport,” Boychenko said when asked about the city’s contribution to Kiev’s economy before the war.
A local resident reacts while speaking in front of a block of flats badly damaged during the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 18, 2022.
Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters
“Mariupol produces about 12 million tons of steel a year, which is 4.5% of Ukraine’s gross domestic product and 7% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings,” he said, adding that Mariupol’s steel industry has created about 50,000 jobs.
At nearly $70 billion, Ukraine’s exports in 2021 were led by the country’s agricultural sector and metals industry.
Both industries are served by the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, one of Ukraine’s busiest shipping routes, exporting agricultural products, coal and steel.
Olena Lennon, a professor in the Department of National Security at the University of New Haven, said one of Russia’s main goals in taking Mariupol was to close off port access to further weaken Ukraine’s economy.
“The Sea of Azov port in Mariupol is one of the most important Ukrainian ports for industrial and agricultural products,” Lennon told CNBC.
“By denying Ukraine access to the port, the Russians not only tried to prevent Ukraine from becoming a prosperous state, but also denied Ukraine the ability to sustain its economy during the war,” said Lennon, who testified from the south-east Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
She added that while Mariupol’s shoreline on the Sea of Azov is of strategic importance, since 2014 the once-industrial coastal city has also become a “flagship” of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression.
“Mariupol resisted this occupation and became a symbol of Ukrainian patriotism in a sea of allegedly pro-Russian influence,” Lennon said, explaining that Russian forces were interested in razing the city, although they later had to rebuild parts of it .
“It was never about controlling these cities to enable a different life or to maintain the infrastructure. It’s just about weakening Ukrainian sovereignty and undermining the Ukrainian state,” she said. “There is no consideration for the population.”