A sprawling Soviet-era steel factory housing thousands of soldiers and civilians is the latest Ukrainian redoubt in the ruined city of Mariupol, where Russian forces’ struggle for complete control of the city appears to be entering its final phase.
Russian commanders said on Tuesday they had begun their attack on the Azovstal steel mill, where the remaining Ukrainian soldiers defending the besieged port city had joined 1,000 or more civilians, Ukrainian officials said. The Russians launched another round of artillery barrages, issuing the latest in a series of ultimatums to the fighters in the factory to surrender.
But the Azovstal factory is a formidable fortress, an immense industrial complex of thick concrete and walls, steel doors and underground warrens. Yan Gagin, who identified himself as a Russian adviser in the Donetsk People’s Republic, a self-proclaimed Kremlin-backed government in eastern Ukraine, said on a broadcast that the steel plant was designed to withstand nuclear war.
“It’s basically a city under a city,” he said, admitting that the Russian campaign to seize the factory was significantly hampered by the sophisticated communication systems connecting the factory’s basements.
Fred Kagan, a historian of Russia at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “I assume the Russians will do everything they can to eliminate this bag.” But he said this could cost Moscow dearly.
Spanning four square miles, the factory is a complex of buildings, chimneys, blast furnaces and piles of coils and sheet metal, and it has its own port facilities on the Sea of Azov.
It was one of the largest metal plants in Europe, producing about 10 million tons of steel a year before the Russian invasion, most of which was sent by ship to European customers, according to its owner, Metinvest, a steel and mining conglomerate owned by the Russian Federation. richest Ukrainians. husband, the billionaire Rinat Akhmetov.
The network of underground spaces, now critical to the survival of the incarcerated soldiers and civilians, was originally built to transport equipment between buildings and to access the undersides of machines on the ground for maintenance, Metinvest said. the company that operated the mill. Before the war, there was no planned military use of the underground areas, the company said.
The Russian army ordered Ukrainian troops inside to evacuate trapped civilians through humanitarian corridors.
But the Ukrainians said they did not trust the Russians to keep their promise of safe passage and would likely refuse; they said they were preparing for battle. That sets the stage for a potentially bloody, protracted confrontation that could leave many civilians at risk.
“We are ready to fight to the last drop of blood,” Major Sergiy Volyna, a Ukrainian officer in the city, wrote in a Facebook post. Major Volnya appealed to the United States and its European allies to help Ukrainian troops with more heavy weapons. “We need to know that the world has done everything possible for this.”
The Russians are trying to gain undisputed control over a piece of territory connecting the separatist-controlled regions of Donbas, in southeastern Ukraine, to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia conquered in 2014. †
Russian forces have been besieging the city, an important port, since last month, bombarding much rubble and slowly tightening their grip.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
The battle for the Azovstal steel factory recalls one of the great battles of World War II, the battle for the Stalingrad tractor factory when Nazi Germany’s troops tried to take the city. Thousands of German and Soviet soldiers died there, as did many civilians, before the Soviets finally got the upper hand.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Mr. Kagan said. “Anytime you’re dealing with a sprawling heavy industrial complex, it will be a good combat position for defenders.”
Ukrainian intelligence wrote in a statement Monday that the Russians were preparing to use three-ton bombs on the plant in an attempt to completely raze it to the ground. Moscow has not been “deterred by the fact that civilians have taken refuge in the factory,” the agency said in a statement, adding that it expected “surprises of 3 tons” from the air.
“You would be amazed at how well people can survive large bombs in such a facility,” said Mr. Kagan, adding that the Russians have not shown extraordinary precision in aiming.