‘Fortress within a city’: a steelworks becomes a Ukrainian stronghold in Mariupol | Ukraine

EExplosions rumbled and smoke billowed this week in a beleaguered steel district of Mariupol, where waning Ukrainian forces are holed up as Russia tries to take full control of its biggest city yet.

The Azovstal steelworks, one of Europe’s largest metallurgical plants, has become an apocalyptic redoubt for Ukrainian forces who are outgunned, outnumbered and surrounded seven weeks after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.

East of the southern port devastated by weeks of bombardment, the factory sits in an industrial area that overlooks the Sea of ​​Azov and covers more than 11 km2 (4.25 sq mi), containing a myriad of buildings , blast furnaces and railway tracks.

“The Azovstal factory is a huge space with so many buildings that the Russians…just can’t find [the Ukrainian forces]said Oleh Zhdanov, a Kyiv-based military analyst.

“That’s why they [the Russians] started talking about trying a chemical attack; that’s the only way to smoke them out,” Zhdanov said.

The Azovstal steelworks behind damaged buildings in Mariupol on March 28.
The Azovstal steelworks behind damaged buildings in Mariupol on March 28. Photograph: Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

Ukraine said it was verifying unverified reports that Russia may have used chemical weapons in Mariupol. Russian-backed separatists have denied using chemical weapons.

In peacetime, the Azovstal Ironworks pumped out 4 million tons of steel per year, 3.5 million tons of hot metal and 1.2 million tons of rolled steel.

Like the city’s Illich steel mill and steelworks, Azovstal is owned by Metinvest, the group controlled by Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire and Ukraine’s richest man.

A Russian separatist deputy commander told Russian state television on Monday that Moscow had captured 80% of the port, but resistance continued and Ukrainian forces had all tried to “break out towards the Azovstal factory”.

He described the factory as a “fortress within a city”.

The city’s defenders include Ukrainian marines, motorized brigades, a national guard brigade and the Azov regiment, a militia created by far-right nationalists that was later integrated into the national guard.

It is the Azov regiment, the destruction of which is among Moscow’s war aims, that is prominently associated with Azovstal and one of its founders, Andriy Biletskiy, also called it “the fortress of the ‘Azov’.

Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the invasion a ‘special operation’ for the ‘demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine’, but Ukraine and the West say Russia has launched a war of aggression not provoked.

“Azov is indeed on the territory of Azovstal… These are huge territories with workshops that cannot be destroyed from the air, that’s why the Russians use heavy bombs,” said Sergiy Zgurets, a military analyst.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that more than 1,000 troops from Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, including 162 officers, had traveled to Mariupol, although Ukraine has not confirmed this.

Pro-Russian troops drive an armored vehicle during battles near the Azovstal factory in Mariupol
Pro-Russian troops ride in an armored vehicle during fighting near the Azovstal factory in Mariupol on April 12. Photograph: Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, later said that members of the 36th Marine Brigade managed to break through in a “very risky maneuver” to join the regiment in Azov.

“The 36th Brigade has avoided being torn apart and now has serious additional opportunities, essentially getting a second chance,” he said.

The lack of mobile reception and internet in the city means that information is scarce. Ukraine has kept tight control over reporting on troop numbers and other sensitive issues that could jeopardize its defence.

On March 20, Biletskiy told Ukrainian news site NV that Ukraine had a total of 3,000 fighters defending the city against up to 14,000 Russians.

Maxar, a private US satellite company, was able to observe the raging battles from space on Tuesday.

“Smoke and fires were observed coming from a number of buildings in the western and eastern parts of the city as well as in and near the Azovstal steelworks – the site of battles ongoing between Russian and Ukrainian forces,” he said.

An EU security source told Reuters it was too difficult to say how long the Ukrainians could hold out and that it was difficult for Russia to occupy the whole city because of the industrial complexes. “There are tunnel systems under the steelworks.”

“Mariupol is very important for Putin because after a victory there (and the surrender of Azov troops) he can say that the ‘denazification’ process is a success,” the source added.

An aide to the mayor of Mariupol said Wednesday that Russia plans to celebrate victory in the city on May 9, when Moscow marks victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with an annual parade in Red Square.

Zhdanov, the military analyst, said he saw little chance of outside Ukrainian forces breaking Russia’s siege.

“How many pit stops the defenders have and how long they can hold out is anybody’s guess. But they have no other way out. They are surrounded on all sides, they must hold out until the end. If they give in, they will not be spared,” he said.

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