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Forecast Podcast: In Ukraine’s besieged city of Mariupol, thousands remain trapped with Russian forces closing in

a photo of a theater in Mariupol, Ukraine showing extensive damage from an airstrike. The center of the building is destroyed with the right side having less damage than the left. The foreground shows a lawn. Nearer to the building are trees by the damaged building. The trees are knocked over.

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Alex Moore discuss Ukraine’s besieged city of Mariupol, plus more on Argentina’s debt deal with the International Monetary Fund, Pakistani lawmakers considering a no confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan, Zimbabwe’s by-elections and Yemen peace talks. 

These stories and more are also available in our weekly Forecast email and you can subscribe for free.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Irene Villora, Awais Ahmad, Jimmy Lovaas, Agnese Boffano and Alex Moore.  Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe

Have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed? Drop us a note: hello@factal.com.

Transcript

Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is March 24th.

In this week’s forecast we take a look at Argentina’s debt deal with the International Monetary Fund, Pakistani lawmakers taking up a no-confidence vote, Zimbabwe’s by-elections, Yemen peace talks and an update on Ukraine’s besieged city of Mariupol.

You can also read about these stories and more in our weekly newsletter.

IMF meeting on Argentina debt deal

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: The International Monetary Fund and Argentina’s government will meet Friday. They’ll be discussing a controversial support program requested by Argentina to pay its debt to the institution.

IMF board members will meet Argentine officials to approve an agreement to refinance the $44 billion credit, which was contracted in 2018 by the Mauricio Macri administration amid a sustained period of economic hardship in the country. 

Argentinians will face cuts in social welfare and an increase in gas and electricity prices as part of the budget redistribution to meet payment deadlines. 

The new agreement sparked violent protests in Buenos Aires earlier this month. 

Now, the IMF is expected to ratify the agreement, which allows longer payment deadlines, after considering the current challenging global economic scenario worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The approval could spark new protests in the country.

No-confidence vote against Pakistani PM

Information compiled by Awais Ahmad

JIMMY: The Pakistani National Assembly will convene for a special session Friday to vote on the motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Pakistan’s opposition coalition submitted the no-confidence motion against Khan earlier this month, accusing him of mismanaging the economy. 

In the time since, the opposition has met with parties allied to the ruling PTI party and some PTI members have defected over frustration with Khan’s administration. 

And though the rules require the vote to have taken place by this past Monday — 14 days since the motion was submitted — the vote was scheduled for Friday to accommodate the conference of Islamic countries in Islamabad.

Now, no Pakistani prime minister has ever completed their full term, however, no premier has ever been removed from office through this process. 

Finally, with PTI’s “biggest ever rally” and an opposition march on Islamabad both planned for Sunday, a potential historic ouster of Khan could lead to violence and political turmoil for the foreseeable future.

Zimbabwe National Assembly by-elections

Information compiled by Jimmy Lovaas

JIMMY: Zimbabwe will hold its long-awaited by-elections Saturday to fill vacancies in the National Assembly and various local positions across the country.   

Of course, the lead up to the election has been marred by violence attributed to supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party. During a rally in Kwekwe for the opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change, a machete-wielding gang killed at least one person and injured more than a dozen others. 

Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the violence, saying “the government’s rhetoric has done much to incite such ferocious violence.” The police have also blocked new opposition rallies.

Now, the election will fill 133 vacancies, including 28 parliamentary seats and 105 council seats. If the opposition manages to secure a number of wins, it could lead to changes in Zimbabwe’s power establishment. 

Finally, Citizens Coalition for Change leader Nelson Chamisa said he’s refused an offer for a government of national unity, saying elections should go forward and whoever wins will lead.”

Yemen peace talks

Information compiled by Agnese Boffano

JIMMY: Talks to resolve the now eight-year-long Yemen conflict are scheduled to begin Tuesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, led by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels rejected an invitation to the talks, saying they would only engage in negotiations on “neutral” territory. 

While previously, Yemen peace talks took place in countries not directly linked to the conflict, such as Oman, Saudi Arabia heads the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen.Now, Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Dr. Nayef Al-Hajraf said the talks would revolve around six points, starting with the “military and security axis” focused on a ceasefire. 

Additionally, with a global scarcity in oil supply amid Russian sanctions and a stalemate in the Iran nuclear deal, Riyadh is encouraging international actors to take a tougher stance on the Houthis targeting of oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

That, yielding yet another level of urgency to a conflict that for years has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Siege of Mariupol

Information compiled by Alex Moore

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is an update on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For more on that I spoke with Factal Editor Alex Moore. 

JIMMY: Hi, Alex. 

ALEX: Hello, Jimmy. 

JIMMY: Well, Alex, it’s been about a month since you were here briefing us about Russia and Ukraine. Last time we were talking about Russia amassing troops near the Ukrainian border and then literally the day after we recorded that Putin’s forces invaded.

ALEX: Yes, exactly. Yeah, tomorrow, which will be March 24th, will mark one month since the full-scale invasion across multiple fronts of Ukraine and in a couple of days it’ll mark one month since Mariupol began to be besieged, which is what we’re going to talk about a bit today.

JIMMY: Well, this podcast isn’t long enough to go into all the enormous developments that have unrolled since the last time you were here, but one thing you mentioned then was that Mariupol seeing combat would be a big deal and potentially very deadly. That sure seems to be the case. Can you give us a rundown on what’s going on there and why that particular city is of so much importance?

ALEX: Well, Mariupol has been besieged now for weeks. It was kind of pincered by Russia and Russia-backed forces pushing from Donetsk oblast. So, from the east, as well as what was a pretty substantial naval landing to the west of Mariupol. So, Russian forces that did a naval landing on a beachhead and broke out from Crimea, they’ve seen the most success in this military campaign for Russia of the three broad pushes. So they’ve been able to expand throughout southern Ukraine, along the Black Sea coast and Sea of Azov coast and Mariupol is now the final remaining hub of Ukrainian control along the Azov. So the city has been besieged. It is surrounded on all sides. And obviously it’s a port city, so it’s on water, And Russia, over the past few days, has begun to bombard Mariupol from the sea as well. So it’s looking pretty dire there. Mariupol is the de facto government capital of Ukraine-controlled Donetsk and it saw combat a couple of times during the war post-2014, but it was always sort of seen as this beacon of Ukrainian-controlled opposition to the Russia-backed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.

JIMMY: How’s the city held up? And have the residents been able to evacuate?

ALEX: So the city has been pounded over the last few weeks. At least 80% of residential buildings have been destroyed. The Ukrainian forces that are holding the city have released numerous videos of industry being targeted. So the city has been heavily bombarded both from rocket launchers on the ground, artillery, airstrikes, naval bombardment, as we talked about. There’s been critical infrastructure hit. A hospital was hit, The Mariupol drama theater, which was housing hundreds of people hiding in a bomb shelter was hit. A school housing people was hit. So, they have been fairly indiscriminate with their targeting. And we don’t exactly know the extent to which they control the city; them being the Ukrainians. Today, Russia-linked sources indicated that they controlled 70% of the city, Russian forces that is, and a few days ago the Ukrainian local authorities did sort of indicate that roughly 50% of the city was under Russian control. So what we’re seeing is just extremely brutal street fighting. They’re fighting over every block. It’s brutal. There’s tank combat. It’s urban; it’s nasty. Unfortunately, residents have seen the brunt of this too. There have been at least 3,000 civilian casualties up until this point and the evacuation corridors have been spotty at best. We’ve now been able to see a few thousand civilians evacuated, but it’s continuing to be spotty. Russia has still continued to, on occasion, shell the corridors. We’ve seen convoys struck in Zaporizhia after they leave Mariupol. Yesterday there were four children hospitalized after a bus was hit. So even if they’re able to leave Mariupol, they’re not entirely out in the clear. And the flip side of that, we’ve seen extreme difficulties getting humanitarian aid into the city, which they badly need. Of course, it’s a besieged city, they have no water. They’re melting snow to drink water. No food. No medicine.

JIMMY: Certainly sounds like a bleak situation. Do the Ukrainian forces have any chance at holding the city?

ALEX: That’s tough to say right now. Mariupol is sort of indicative of the way that Ukrainians have fought this war period, which has been trying to gain attrition from the Russian side. They’re making them fight over every inch of territory, as we talked about. And at the end of the day, they’ve held out for this long. I don’t know how much longer they’re gonna hold out. But that remains to be seen.

JIMMY: You know, a lot of Putin’s rhetoric trying to justify the invasion, and even some domestic US criticism of the war, seems to involve a far-right militia that’s involved in the fighting in Mariupol. Can you explain what that’s all about?

ALEX: Yes, so the Azov Battalion, or Azov Brigade, is a far-right wing militia that sprouted up after the first Russian invasion in 2014. And Mariupol is sort of their hub – it’s their seat – and they were folded under the auspices of the Ukrainian National Guard, which was fighting in what was formerly the anti-terror operation and is now the joint forces operation. So they’re the ones with purview over the Donbass region. So they are officially part of the Ukrainian government forces, broadly speaking. And Azov themselves admit that they have roughly 20% of their fighters with professed neo-Nazi views. So obviously, that is far from ideal, and Mariupol being their hub, they’re the primary defenders of the city. So a lot of the media that’s coming out of combat is coming from Azov, So, you know, Putin, he extends that far broader than just Azov. He’s calling, you know, Zelenskyy a drug addict Nazi. But as far as select US opposition that you’ll see from certain groups, they will primarily focus on Azov. There were multiple movements in Congress over the years during the, you know, debates regarding sending lethal aid to Ukraine. During the Obama years, during the Trump years, when they began to send defensive lethal aid to Ukraine there were movements to make sure that none of those weapons went to Azov. So they have been sort of thrust into this prominent position of personifying the Ukrainian Armed Forces that they don’t exactly have. But that is not to diminish the fact that they have some abhorrent views, you know, depending on which member you pull out and whatnot. So, far from ideal that they’re the ones who are defending Mariupol against Russian aggression. But it should also be noted that Russia obviously also deploys, you know, wide swaths of far-right wing forces, and not just within their own armed forces. I’m talking about brigades fighting in Donetsk, I’m talking about the Wagner forces, I’m talking about motorcycle groups that have fought in Donetsk. So it’s not at all unique to Ukraine, to be extremely clear.

JIMMY: Well, I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but what do you think folks should be watching for next?

ALEX: Well, if Mariupol were to fall that would be a massive deal for a couple of reasons. It would completely block off the Sea of Azov access to Ukraine. And, as noted earlier, the Russian push in the South has been far more successful than the ones in the North – the Sumy, Kharkiv, Kyiv. So the Russians are currently stalled, pushing west to Mykolaiv, which is the last major city standing between them and Odesa. And obviously, if they were to take Odesa that would be a massive deal. It would more or less blockade Ukraine from the sea. So freeing up forces fighting over Mariupol, especially considering a lot of them are elite Chechen units, to go fight over Mykolaiv would put Odesa under severe strain. There’s also the possibility that they could push north and meet up with Russian forces pushing south through Kharkiv Oblast that are fighting over Izyum right now, which is more or less surrounded. They could link up, hypothetically speaking, and isolate dozens of thousands of Ukrainian troops in the Donbass region. That seems like a bit of a stretch considering Russia has had immense issues projecting that sort of power over distance, but Mariupol falling would open up a lot of possibilities that aren’t good for Ukraine. Those are the two main ones to note: a renewed emphasis on pushing Mykolaiv, which the Ukrainian side repulsed over the last few days, and the possibility of completely isolating Ukrainian forces in the Donbass, of which there are obviously lots of them there.

JIMMY: Well, unfortunately, we are way over time today, but as always I really appreciate your insight here. Thank you, Alex.

ALEX: Of course, thanks for having me, Jimmy. 

JIMMY: Take care.

JIMMY: Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Irene Villora, Awais Ahmad, me – Jimmy Lovaas and Agnese Boffano. Our interview featured editor Alex Moore and our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, thanks for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. You can, of course, subscribe for free. And if you have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing hello@factal.com.

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed.

Photo: A theater in Mariupol, Ukraine, where civilians were sheltering, was destroyed by an airstrike Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on March 16, 2022. (Photo: Donetsk Regional Civil-Military/Telegram)

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