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Like Kobane, the Kurdish held town in northern Syria that has recently caught the imagination of the world, Mariupol is symbolically important for both sides of the conflict. In May and June 2014 the city was under separatists' control. Ukrainian government forces retook the city over the summer and made it the temporary capital of the Donetsk Oblast.

Since then it has become a symbol of resistance for Ukraine. On the other hand, the separatists view the capture of the city as unfinished business.

Since the so-called ceasefire agreement was signed last September, fighting had continued in eastern Ukraine but on a low and localised level. However, with renewed fighting in Luhansk, the recent capture of Donetsk airport by the rebels, and the new offensive to capture the important city of Mariupol, it looks like the Russia- backed separatists are on the march once again.

The ceasefire agreement has been completely thrown out the window.

Due to a spate of recent artillery barrages killing dozens of innocent civilians, much of the world's attention has turned to the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Like Kobane, the Kurdish-held town in northern Syria that has recently caught the imagination of the world, Mariupol is symbolically important for both sides of the conflict. In May and June 2014, the city was under separatists' control. Ukrainian government forces retook the city over the summer and made it the temporary capital of the Donetsk Oblast.

Since then it has become a symbol of resistance for Ukraine. On the other hand, the separatists view the capture of the city as unfinished business.

Strategically Important

But unlike Kobane, the city of Mariupol's importance goes beyond symbolism - it has strategic value too. Mariupol is home to one of the largest ports in Ukraine. The city is home to the command and control centre for Ukrainian military operations in Donetsk. It also serves as a large logistics hub, not only for military activity, but also economic activity in the region.

Ukraine militia vows to fight rebels in Mariupol

For the separatists, the capture of Mariupol and its port will deny the Ukrainian government a strategic asset. For Russia, the capture of Mariupol brings them one step closer to establishing a land bridge to Crimea - something that it desperately needs.

The capture of Mariupol will be no easy task. For starters, Mariupol is Ukraine's 10th largest city and the resulting urban warfare will be bloody for both sides. Since the Ukrainian military retook Mariupol over the summer it has gone to great lengths to beef up the city's defences - even building a network of trenches reminiscent of World War I.   

The separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine are Russian-backed, Russian-trained, and Russian-equipped. Soldiers kitted out in the latest military gear and wearing uniforms with Russian military insignias have been spotted in eastern Ukraine - so have Russian tanks. In an era of prolific social media, this sort of thing can no longer be hidden from the outside world.

Publicly, Europe shows a united front when dealing with Russia's aggression in Ukraine, but those working inside the corridors of Brussels - or in the Kremlin - know otherwise.

A recently leaked document, drafted by the EU's External Action Service for the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, suggested that an easing of sanctions and a return to normalised relations with Russia should be the way forward.

While Europe dithers

Last month Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the EU should "re-engage" with Russia. Austria said the EU should start thinking "how to put the relationship with Russia back on a solid footing in the long term".  

European foreign ministers are meeting this week to discuss the recent escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine and to agree on how to respond. With Europe divided on how to deal with Russia, the meeting is not likely to accomplish much beyond empty words in a communique.

This week, the new left-wing government in Greece disagreed with the other 27 members of the EU on apportioning blame to Moscow for a recent artillery attack in Mariupol which killed 30 people.

Spain also allowed 13 Russian warships to visit and resupply in its ports in 2014 - an extraordinary thing considering that Spain is a member of NATO.

European foreign ministers are meeting this week to discuss the recent escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine and to agree on how to respond. With Europe divided on how to deal with Russia, the meeting is not likely to accomplish much beyond empty words in a communique.

If Mariupol falls to the Russian-backed separatists, the consequences for Ukraine would be grave. Not only would it be a huge propaganda coup for the separatists, it would significantly curtail the ability of Kiev to put down the rebellion in Donetsk.

Of course, the big winner would be Russia. Moscow would be one step closer to a land bridge to Crimea, one step closer in realising the reestablishment of Novorossiya, and one step closer to fully dismembering the territorial integrity of Ukraine.  

No matter how fierce the fighting gets, and no matter how many innocent civilians are killed in the crossfire, Vladimir Putin will not back down. It was made evident by Moscow's behaviour after the tragic shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 that Putin will stick to his strategy in eastern Ukraine at all cost.

It is astonishing that such atrocities are taking place in 21st century Europe. With the absence of US leadership in Europe, and with Europeans divided on how to respond to Russia's aggression, the Ukrainians had better fight for Mariupol like their country's survival depends on it - because it does. 

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera