Mariupol, Ukraine – The sea blockade cost Alexey Pilipchuk his job.
The 54-year-old used to bus workers to the Azovstal, a mammoth, Communist-era plant that resembles a backdrop for a post-apocalyptic movie.
Azovstal churns out steel slabs and emits toxic, putrid fumes that blanket Mariupol, a city of more than 500,000 in southeastern Ukraine.
Mariupol is Ukraine’s principal port on the Sea of Azov, a shallow body of water between Ukraine, Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Steel amounts to two-thirds of exports from Mariupol’s seaport, followed by iron ore, grain and sunflower oil.
The trade helped keep Ukraine’s struggling economy afloat – until last year, when Russian border patrol ships stopped more than 150 Ukrainian or Ukraine-bound trade ships for days in the Strait of Kerch that links Azov to the Black Sea, causing multi-million damages and forcing steel producers to cut costs, officials said.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s then-president, urged NATO to send warships and prevent what he called Russia’s “annexation” of Azov and its “blockade.”
He sent three decrepit, decades-old navy vessels from the Black Sea port of Odessa, but Russians attacked the ships and seized their crews in late November. All 24 servicemen are awaiting trial in Moscow for alleged “illegal border crossing.”
The disruption of technological links, the logistical system in the region hit Mariupol the most.
Days later, Poroshenko imposed temporary martial law – and Pilipchuk quit his job.
“I told them to go to hell with their excuses” to pay less and less every month, he told Al Jazeera, puffing on a cheap cigarette.
He got his first job as steelmaker at Azovstal in 1989, when pollution was so high that only his “eyes and lips were not black by the end of the day.”
Pilipchuk now spends a lot of time in the large garden of his house outside Mariupol, where he raises chickens and ducks. He occasionally moonlights as a taxi driver in his rusting Subaru whose engine has been modified to run on natural gas.
Other residents of Mariupol are less fortunate.
Two gigantic steel plants are the largest employers, but employees don’t feel safe.
“Every day feels like the last,” Olexander, who works as an engineer at the Illich plant, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because he fears dismissal. “And not just for me, for everyone.”
Both plants belong to Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire oligarch and political chameleon.
He was the grey cardinal behind pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was overthrown by the massive Euromaidan protests in 2014, and forged close ties with pro-Western leader Poroshenko.
Akhmetov’s companies and associates control many walks of life in Mariupol and the entire Azov region, experts claim.
“Some officials in Mariupol call him ‘master,'” Kyiv-based political analyst Ihar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera. The halls of power “have been very strictly, very tightly controlled by Akhmetov’s structures.”
Since late November, no Ukrainian or Ukraine-bound ship has been stopped by Russian border patrols, but the Kremlin has another tactic. These days, the average wait for Ukraine-bound freighters to get Russia’s permission for passage is 40 hours, according to the Maidan of Foreign Affairs, a Ukrainian-think tank.
Another factor limiting the sea trade is the Crimean Bridge across the Strait of Kerch that links the annexed peninsula to mainland Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin dubbed the $4bn, 19 kilometre-long lacework of steel and concrete a “miracle” and unveiled it in May 2018. Millions have crossed it to sunbathe on Crimean beaches or transport goods and foodstuffs to the occupied peninsula.
But the bridge has become a bridgehead in what Ukraine calls Moscow’s “hybrid” war. Its height of only 35 metres above sea level prevents large ships from entering Azov.
Ukraine’s ageing, minuscule fleet can’t rival the swarms of new Russian ships and helicopters guarding the bridge.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian fishermen have lost access to the fish-rich Russian side of Azov despite the 2003 accord that makes the sea fully accessible to both nations.
“Of course, prices soared,” Irina, a fishmonger at one of Mariupol’s markets, told Al Jazeera.
A strong wind from the sea forced Inna Abramova to place her canvas on the asphalt as she was painting a decrepit elevator tower in Mariupol’s port.
The stately artist is a victim of Europe’s hottest armed conflict, which smoulders nearby.
In April 2014, pro-Russian separatists in the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk took up arms against the central government. They seized Mariupol for two months and still control key parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The war killed more than 13,000 and displaced millions, the United Nations said – including Abramova, who fled Donetsk in 2015. The region’s deteriorating fortunes affected her, and she earns a living by designing websites.
“It’s almost impossible to survive here as an artist,” she told Al Jazeera.
The war reshaped eastern Ukraine’s steelmaking industry, based on the proximity of the coal mines of Donetsk to the iron ore deposits around Mariupol, its plants and port.
“The disruption of technological links, the logistical system in the region, hit Mariupol the most,” Kyiv-based economy expert Alexey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
He says that Mariupol is losing tens of millions of dollars a year because of Russia’s harassment of freighters and higher production costs for steelmakers.
Ukraine’s top infrastructure official puts the estimate much higher.
Since 2014, the amount of cargo shipped out of Mariupol fell by 70 percent, the neighbouring port of Berdyansk lost 50 percent, and the losses of the ports and the entire region amounted to $400 million, Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister Volodymir Omelyan said in May.
In early June, an international arbitration court in The Hague started deliberating on Moscow’s violations of Ukraine’s rights to coastal waters around Crimea, including the Sea of Azov.
However, the loss of Crimea benefitted the tourist industry, including Mariupol, where dozens of hotels line the shore and vacationing Ukrainians don’t seem to mind rubbish in the sand and brownish seawater polluted by the steel plants.
Almost two-fifths of voters in Ukraine-controlled parts of the Donetsk region – of which Mariupol is part – voted for a pro-Moscow presidential candidate in the first round of this year’s presidential election, and some 88 percent favoured Volodymir Zelensky, a comedian born in the mostly Russian-speaking city of Kryvi Rih, who challenged Poroshenko’s nationalism, in the second round.
Despite the losses caused by the war and the sea blockade, many in Mariupol are still fond of Russian culture and language – without necessarily backing Putin’s policies – because of their dislike of Kyiv’s policies of forced “Ukrainization” that alienate ethnic minorities throughout the country.
“If I like Russia, it does not mean I look in Moscow’s direction,” said the ex-bus driver Pilipchuk, an ethnic Ukrainian who prefers to speak Russian.