In Mariupol, a war of images to prove who controls the city
Mariupol, a city under siege by the Russian army, has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Amid intense fighting and devastating shelling attacks, Mariupol is also the site of a war of images. Propaganda photos and videos from both sides have been widely distributed as proof that either the Ukrainians or Russians are in control of the city. However, a closer inspection shows that neither one is.
Who really controls Mariupol? The large port city on the coast of the Sea of Azov has been the site of fierce battles. But with the last independent journalists leaving the city on March 21, a propaganda war has flourished there on both sides.
One on hand, Russian troops have encircled the city, striving to occupy it. Chechen fighters as well as separatists from the self-proclaimed Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have joined the offensive.
On the other hand, the defence is carried out by Ukrainian soldiers from the 36th Naval Infantry Brigade, the 56th Motorised Infanrty Brigade, as well as elements of the nationalist Azov Regiment. Created in 2014 as a far-right paramilitary group with ties to neo-Nazism, the Azov Battalion has since been integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard as the Azov Regiment.
Chechen fighters publish many videos – but from the same area
Videos from pro-Russian Chechen fighters have been the most numerous and widely shared, in particular on official Telegram account Kadyrov_95, belonging to the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
On March 21, this Telegram account shared a video of one and a half minutes showing Chechen fighters advancing along Morskyi Boulevard in eastern Mariupol (exact location here). They are on foot and accompanied by Russian tanks, identified by a large white Z symbol.
The video was shared with this text, originally in Russian:
Chechen fighters are successfully advancing in the Mariupol direction. [...] Thanks to the skillful distribution of force and resources, our fighters are not only successfully eliminating firing positions, but also providing reliable cover for their comrades from Russian military formations.
The tone of the message is the same across this Telegram account: confident and victorious. But the claims of made by this account are impossible to verify and lacking evidence. A closer investigation of the visual elements in these propaganda images allows us to understand how Chechen soldiers are really actually mobilised on the ground.
Two days later, on March 23, another video – this one two minutes long – was posted on the same Telegram channel. This one is similar, showing Chechen fighters smiling at the camera through destroyed buildings.
But after analysing visual clues in this video, we found the exact location where it was filmed (here) – still on Morskyi Boulevard, just 350 metres closer to the centre of Mariupol.
A third video (shown in the Tweet below) was geolocated by the Centre for Information Resilience. It shows Chechen fighters, shooting and waving Kadyrov's flag, filmed at the same location as the first two videos.
Geolocation of footage of pro-Russian Kadyrov Chechen fighters in Mariupol. Location: 47.098281, 37.636278 pic.twitter.com/SYb1QUxQyo— Centre for Information Resilience (@Cen4infoRes) March 26, 2022
Azov nationalists continue to fight Russians in Mariupol
On the Ukrainian side, the nationalist Azov Regiment has been openly promoting its feats in Mariupol.
In a video published on an official account on March 25, Azov soldiers claim to have destroyed two Russian BMD-2 armoured infantry vehicles. The footage of the attack, taken from a drone, allowed us to pinpoint the scene to the western suburbs of Mariupol (here).
The text that accompanies this combat video is also typical of tried and tested propaganda: "Azov fighters killed the enemy without destroying any civilian infrastructure."
Here again, it was impossible for the FRANCE 24 Observers team to verify the veracity of this information. If these images do indeed show Russian vehicles being destroyed, it should be noted that the buildings in the vicinity are also partially impacted.
Another video, again filmed with a drone and published by Azov on March 23, shows damage in Mariupol after several weeks of war. We pinpointed this video, taken this time by Ukrainians, to the same Morskyi Boulevard where Chechen fighters were advancing in the videos above, to the east of the city.
While we cannot say precisely when any of these videos were taken, it is clear that this area was at least contested by both sides at that time.
Azov base in Mariupol capture
Another video also emerged on March 28 on Telegram. It was shot by a correspondent of RT (a Russian-funded channel) in Mariupol. It shows Russian fighters entering the main base of the Azov Regiment in Mariupol, still to the east of the city, and emptied of Ukrainian soldiers at the time.
Mariupol, a strategic target for Russian forces
Despite the claims made by both sides in these propaganda videos, our analysis has indicated no evidence that either Ukrainians or Russians are controlling the city. As is typical in urban combat, the lines of control are constantly moving.
However, this propaganda shows efforts from both sides to virtually compete for control of the coastal city. Mariupol, strategically placed between the Donbas and the Crimean peninsula, is a crucial objective for Russian forces.
The two regions of Crimea and Donbas have been the scene of some of the Russian army's fastest advances since the offensive began on February 24. If Russian generals succeed in consolidating their control over the entire southern part of Ukraine by taking Mariupol, it would give them new access to the Azov Sea and represent a major symbolic win.
But in reality, fighting is still raging and no victory has been secured. Amid fierce attacks, more than 100,000 civilians are still trapped in Mariupol, according to the city's mayor Vadym Boytchenko in an interview March 29 with BFMTV.