Numerous observers of the recent events in Ukraine and Mariupol have concluded that the Donbas rebels seek to establish an overland corridor (or “land bridge”) to Crimea on behalf of the Kremlin. The claim, often repeated by pundits in the West, was also echoed by at least one Russian political analyst (Sergey Markov).
However, is this really the case? Do the Donbas rebels really want to establish an overland corridor to Crimea?
The facts and realities of the situation indicate, simply, “no.”
First and foremost, the Donbas region as a whole (including both Kiev-held and rebel-held areas) has no geographic link whatsoever with the Crimean peninsula (see the above map). In order to establish a land bridge to Crimea, the rebels would need to invade the neighboring oblasti of Zaporozhia and Kherson on the Black Sea, both of which are not considered part of the Donbas.
Such an action would create a serious escalation of the Ukrainian conflict, something that Moscow has continuously stressed it wants to avoid. There is also the question regarding the rationale for the creation an overland corridor to Crimea when Russia has already invested a lot to build a bridge to the peninsula across the Kerch strait to the Krasnodar Krai.
Even more importantly, since August, the rebels, especially the leader of the Donetsk Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, have made it clear on numerous occasions that they do not have any territorial ambitions outside of the Donbas region.
In fact, in light of the most recent fighting between Kiev and the Donbas rebels, Zakharchenko vowed to push the front to the borders of the Donetsk oblast so that “no shells can fall on Donetsk.” The recent Mariupol hostilities need to be comprehended in this context.
Mariupol is important to the rebels, not as a potential part of an overland corridor to Crimea, but as part of the Donbas region and part of the Donetsk oblast more specifically. In fact, it is the second largest city in the Donetsk oblast after Donetsk. It is also a major port, giving the rebels another “life line” to Russia. These are the reasons for its importance.