An exiled mayor in Ukraine vows to rebuild his city after Russia’s reign of destruction


Vadym Boychenko, mayor of Mariupol, at his office in the city hall of Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.

Christopher Occhicone | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WASHINGTON  The exiled Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol has vowed to rebuild his decimated former city as he marked one year since it fell to Russian occupying forces.

The seaside city, whose steel industry was once an economic powerhouse for the nation, saw its last Ukrainian forces withdraw from it a year ago Saturday, after nearly three months of intense fighting.

But Vadym Boychenko isn’t deterred. And he has a multibillion-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 the city is liberated, we are fully prepared and do not waste time,” the mayor, who now lives elsewhere in Ukraine, told CNBC. “This is the moment when we have to prepare for our return to Mariupol as efficiently as possible,” he added. CNBC spoke to Boychenko in April and May for this story.

Boychenko, 45, was under no illusions, though, as he detailed the immense destruction in Mariupol and the financial hurdles facing Ukraine as Russia’s war drag into its 500th day.

“Mariupol is one of the most destroyed cities in Ukraine today. The occupation forces damaged more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure,” he said. The strategic port city endured more brutality by Russian forces in two months than it did in the two years under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the mayor added.

Russian service members work on demining the territory of Azovstal steel plant during Ukraine-Russia 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. Now its population has been reduced to about 100,000, though Boychenko adds that the current figure is difficult to assess due to a lack of reporting in the city.

He left Mariupol two days after Russian troops poured over Ukraine’s border in what became the largest air, land and sea assault in Europe since World War II. 

As Russian bombardment intensified across the city, Boychenko learned that his grandmother took shelter alongside pregnant women and families with small children in the halls of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater.

On March 16, 2022, the regal theater in the city center became the site of one of the deadliest known attacks on civilians since the inception of the war. Boychenko’s grandmother did not survive her injuries sustained from the airstrike.

The attack on the theater came one week after Russian bombs tore through a children’s and maternity hospital in Mariupol. The bombing and images of bloodied pregnant women evacuated out of the rubble sparked an international outcry.

A view shows the building of a theatre destroyed in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 10, 2022. Picture taken with a drone.

Pavel Klimov | Reuters

Boychenko said that indiscriminate Russian shelling has damaged nearly 20 hospitals, more than 60 schools and almost 90 cultural sites in Mariupol.

He said Mariupol’s high-rise residential buildings have suffered the most damage, with more than 50% of the structures leveled by Russian shelling. If proven, what he claims could amount to war crimes under international humanitarian law.

“The situation with the basic life support systems is difficult, there is almost no water, gas or electricity supply,” he said, adding that restoration of the city’s critical infrastructure is his first priority and is expected to take about two years.

Russia has previously said that its forces in Ukraine do not target civilians or civilian infrastructure and that the attacks on the theater and maternity hospital were staged.

‘Mariupol Reborn’

An aerial view taken on April 12, 2022, shows the city of Mariupol, during Russia’s military invasion launched on Ukraine.

Andrey Borodulin | AFP | Getty Images

Despite early Russian advances in the war, Ukraine seized back large swaths of territory, repelling opposition forces in many places with the aid of Western money and weaponry. Ukraine is also reportedly planning a fresh offensive to further push back the Kremlin’s invading forces.

The Ukraine military’s successes have given officials hope that they can return to now-occupied areas if the Russians are driven out.

Boychenko’s plan, dubbed “Mariupol Reborn,” consists of two stages: the rapid restoration of critical infrastructure, followed by reconstruction and city revival projects.

The resumption of basic services like water supply, electricity and the reopening of hospitals are a few of the immediate concerns that will be addressed in the first phase. He estimates that Ukraine will need about $378 million in investment for the first stage.

Boychenko said that the second phase of the project is expected to cost approximately $15.6 billion, though adds that the figure is based on preliminary assessments.

“Together with our international partners and the World Bank we will assess the extent of the destruction and record the damage caused to Mariupol,” he said, adding that the current price tag is only an estimation.

In March, the government of Ukraine, 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 top needs are primarily in rebuilding transportation infrastructure, housing and energy systems.

Before Russia’s invasion last February, Mariupol was affectionately known as the mighty Ukrainian city with a fierce, steel heart.

“It was a powerful industrial and business center with two large metallurgical enterprises and a seaport,” Boychenko said when asked about the city’s contribution to Kyiv’s economy before the war.

A local resident reacts while speaking outside a block of flats heavily damaged during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 18, 2022.

Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters

“Mariupol produced 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 Mariupol’s steel industry created approximately 50,000 jobs.

At nearly $70 billion, Ukraine’s exports in 2021 were led by its agricultural sector and the country’s metal industry.

Servicing both industries is Mariupol’s port on the Sea of Azov, one of Ukraine’s busiest shipping lanes responsible for exporting agricultural products, coal and steel.

Olena Lennon, a professor in the national security department at the University of New Haven, said one of Russia’s main goals in seizing Mariupol was to block port access in an effort to further degrade Ukraine’s economy.

“The Sea of Azov port in Mariupol is one of the key Ukrainian ports for both 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 Ukraine the ability to sustain its economy during wartime,” said Lennon, who hails from the southeastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

She added that while Mariupol’s coastline on the Sea of Azov is strategic, the once-industrious seaside city has also become a “poster child” of Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression since 2014.

“Mariupol resisted that occupation and became a symbol of Ukrainian patriotism in a sea of what was perceived as pro-Russian influence,” Lennon said, explaining that Russian forces were keen to level the city despite having to later rebuild components of it.

“It’s never been about controlling these cities to bring about a different life or to maintain infrastructure. It’s all about chipping away at Ukrainian sovereignty and undermining the Ukrainian state,” she said. “There’s zero regard for populations.”

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