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Azovstal steelworks | Fall of the last holdout 

A Ukrainian soldier stands inside the ruined Azovstal steel plant prior to surrender to the Russian forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, May 16, 2022.

A Ukrainian soldier stands inside the ruined Azovstal steel plant prior to surrender to the Russian forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, May 16, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

April 21 was a significant day for the war raging in Ukraine. Although the Russians had captured most of Mariupol by end-March, they were unable to claim victory. The Ukrainians continued to hold on to a major asset that played a key role in Mariupol’s economy: Azovstal Iron and Steel Works.

The sprawling industrial complex, which employed more than 10,000 workers and covered 11 sq. km in the port city’s water front, had seen fierce fighting for weeks. It was with the aim of claiming total control over the city that the Russians had mounted a brutal siege of the steel plant, subjecting it to intense artillery fire, aerial bombardment, and missile strikes.

Ukraine had sent some of its best fighters to defend Mariupol, including the 36th Marine Brigade and the National Guard’s Azov Regiment. More than 2,000 of them had made the Azovstal steel plant their last stand. They used the plant’s vast network of underground tunnels and passages — estimated to be 24 km long — to frequently shift their positions and surprise the Russians. It was in this context that on April 21, in a televised meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, President Vladimir Putin announced a change in strategy: Russia will no longer attempt to ‘capture’ the Azovstal steel plant. Instead, Mr. Putin instructed Mr. Shoigu to seal off the industrial complex so that “not even a fly could get through”. The rest of Mariupol was already in their control. So Russia might as well wait it out until the trapped Ukrainians ran out of supplies, and when that happens, they would have no choice but to surrender. The calculation proved to be accurate.

Soviet-era structure

The Azovstal steel plant, a Soviet-era structure inaugurated in 1933, has seen military action before — it was captured by the Nazis in 1941 and they left it in ruins when they withdrew in 1943. But it was quickly rebuilt and became one of the largest metallurgical facilities in Europe, producing 4 million tonnes of crude steel annually. Crucially, like many large factories of the Soviet era, it had well-stocked bunkers that could accommodate 4,000 people.

But this April, as Russia sealed off the complex, those inside began to run out of food, water and medical supplies. Apart from the Ukrainian soldiers, there were also civilians inside. The Russian border is barely 60 km from Mariupol. When Moscow launched its ‘special military operation’ on February 24, thousands of Mariupol residents — many of them family members of plant workers — fled to the safety of its bunkers. Most of them had assumed that they were going to stay there for a few days. But as the Russian siege went on, the civilians remained trapped.

Diplomatic efforts were made to negotiate their evacuation. After several false starts, all women and children were evacuated by May 8. Ukrainian soldiers and male civilians remained trapped inside, and with supplies running low, they appealed to President Volodymyr Zelensky for help, in vain. Finally, on May 16, the Ukrainian military ordered the commanders in Azovstal “to save the lives of the personnel”. Official statements avoided the term ‘surrender’. Over the following days, according to the Russian military, a total of 1,730 Ukrainian troops surrendered and were taken to camps in territories controlled by Russia.

Although the military significance of the Russian victory at the Azovstal plant is limited, it does hold great value in ideological and psychological terms. In the preceding weeks, the site had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. There were widely circulated reports of Ukrainian soldiers preferring “death by combat” and “fighting to the last man” rather than laying down arms in front of the Russians. In this context, the Ukrainian surrender would be invaluable fodder for Russian propaganda. The Ukrainian military, however, has maintained that its troops at the Azovstal plant had successfully completed their “combat mission”, which was to keep a large number of Russian troops bogged down in Mariupol so that they could not be deployed to other, more critical, battle fronts.

While the fate of these Ukrainian soldiers remains uncertain, there is little doubt that Moscow is now closer than ever to achieving its objective of securing a land bridge from Russia to Crimea.

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 7:57:21 am |