EXPLAINER - Why Mariupol's steelmill is important

Russian President Vladimir Putin claims control of Ukraine's port city Mariupo, while its defenders still hold out at a huge seaside steel mill.

Muhammed Kayan
Muhammed Kayan
22 April 2022 Friday 06:33
172 Reads
EXPLAINER - Why Mariupol's steelmill is important

His statement was a reflection of the importance of the city at the Sea of Azov. It appeared that he was trying to declare victory, without taking on any Ukrainian resistance: the huge Azovstal plant.

WHY IS MARIUPOL IMPORTANT?

Since the February 24th invasion, Mariupol (which is part of an industrial region in eastern Ukraine called the Donbas) has been a key Russian target. The Russians would be able to establish a land corridor between Russia's border and Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014. It would also deprive Ukraine a valuable port and industrial assets.

The siege lasted seven weeks and has held significant Russian forces hostage. These are desperately needed to launch an offensive in other parts of the Donbas. This is the region where Moscow-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian government forces ever since 2014, following the Crimea annexed.

WHAT HAS RUSSIAN SIEGE GOTEN?

The Russian military has relentlessly pounded Mariupol since March 1st with artillery bombardments and air raids. This has flattened most of the once bustling city. The bombardment of homes, hospitals, and other public buildings has resulted in the deaths of thousands. This includes 300 people who were killed in an attack on Mariupol Drama Theater, which was being used as a shelter. Officials also wrote the Russian word "CHILDREN" on the pavement.

According to Mayor Vadym Boychenko, at least 21,000 people died in Mariupol. He claimed that bodies were also dumped in mass graves in the suburbs.

Out of an estimated 450,000 prewar residents, he said that Mariupol still has 120,000 inhabitants.

WHAT HAS UKRAINE DONE?

To defend Mariupol, Ukraine sent its finest troops. These included the 36th Marine Brigade and Interior Ministry troops, border guards, and the Azov Regiment of the national guard. This regiment, a veteran volunteer force, is widely considered to be one of Ukraine's most competent units. Russia has called it a villain for its far-right ideology.

Moscow deployed fighters from Chechnya known for their ferocity to fight in street battles at Mariupol. Ramzan Kadyrov (Chechnya's Moscow-backed leader) has boasted repeatedly on social media about defeating Ukrainians at Mariupol. But the fight has not stopped.

After weeks of fighting house-to-house, in which Russia suffered massive losses, Mariupol's defenders took refuge at the last pocket of resistance, the Azovstal plant, which employed 10,000 workers before the war.

WHY IS THE BATTLE FOR STEEL MILL TAKEN OVER SO LONG?

Moscow estimates that there were only a few thousand Ukrainian troops still in the plant. It covers an area of almost 11 km (over 4.2 miles). Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, stated that about 1,000 civilians were also trapped at the plant.

Azovstal is home to a 24-kilometer (15 mile) long labyrinth of underground tunnels that allow its defenders to move freely in order to resist Russian attacks.

The Ukrainian authorities had prepared for the Russian invasion by building up food and water stocks at Azovstal before the war.

Oleh Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military expert, said that the plant covers a large area and that Ukrainians can travel through underground tunnels to change their location quickly.

Zhdanov stated that Azovstal was very difficult to storm and the Russians could lose many troops, resources, and most importantly time there. It's a city within the city, so fighting could take several months.

He said that the Russians could not redeploy 10-12 elite units from their Russian base to other parts of eastern Ukraine as long as Mariupol is held.

"The city keeps distracting the Russian army troops and thwarting Kremlin plans to launch an offensive in Donbas,"

HOW IS PUTIN PORTRAYING THE BATTLE FOR MARIUPOL?

Putin met with Sergei Shoigu on Thursday, and he stated that all of the city, except Azovstal, is now under Russian control. He said that it would take between three and four days to expel the Ukrainian troops from the steel mill.

Putin gave a well-choreographed, televised congratulations to the military and said that "putting such a crucial center in the south, Mariupol under control, is a success."

Shoigu also ordered Shoigu to not send troops into Azovstal in an attempt to end the resistance. This was to avoid any losses. Instead, the plant would be tightly sealed "so not even one fly gets through."

These remarks seemed to reflect Putin's desire to claim victory without an all-out attack on the plant. He hopes that the plant's defenders will surrender if they run out of ammunition and food. Putin did not mention stopping the bombardment of the plant. This will likely continue.

WHAT IS UKRAINE'S RESPONDING TYPE?

Oleksiy Aestovich was an advisor to Volodymyr Zelenskyy the Ukrainian President. He mocked Putin’s claim of victory and said it reflected the fact that the Russian military "cannot physically capture Azovstal."

Retired British Rear Adm. Chris Parry described Putin’s comments as a sign that Russia is changing its approach. He observed that the Russian agenda now was not to capture these really hard places where the Ukrainians are able to hold out in urban centers, but rather to try to capture territory, encircle the Ukrainian troops, and declare a major victory.

Parry compared the Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol with the Battle of Stalingrad, where the Red Army defeated the Nazis and liberated the city. This was a pivotal turning point in World War II.

Parry stated that he believes there is a great totemic benefit in the Ukrainians holding onto Mariupol. "If the Ukrainians can hold on to it... raised to the level Stalingrad, then it's going be a major lever both in the propaganda campaign and on the ground campaign."

In recent days, commanders of Ukrainian units at this plant made a series a desperate video appeals. They said they were clinging to a thread and beg for help.

Maj. SerhiyVolynskyy, 36th Marine Brigade, stated in a Wednesday video that "we are likely facing our last days if not hours" and that "the enemy outnumbers me 10-1."

He said that he appealed and pleaded for all world leaders to assist him in evacuating the civilians and defenders of the plant.

Zelenskyy stated that about 1,000 civilians could be sheltering in the plant, and that "we're open to various formats of exchange of our people with Russian people and Russian military that they have left behind."

He also stated that Russia had blocked Ukraine's efforts to negotiate an exit.


 

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