By Natalia Zinets
(Reuters) – Explosions rumbled and smoke rose this week from a steelmaking district in besieged Mariupol, where dwindling Ukrainian forces are contained, while Russia is trying to take full control of its largest city to date.
Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, one of Europe’s largest metallurgical plants, has become an appropriate apocalyptic bulwark for Ukrainian forces, which are in excess, in the minority and surrounded seven weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In the eastern part of the southern port, destroyed by weeks of shelling, the plant is located in an industrial area facing the Azov Sea and covers more than 11 square kilometers (4.25 square miles), containing countless buildings, blast furnaces and railway tracks.
“The Azovstal factory is a huge space with so many buildings that the Russians … simply can not find (the Ukrainian forces),” said Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst based in Kiev.
“That’s why they (the Russians) started talking about trying a chemical attack, it’s the only way to smoke them out,” Zhdanov said.
Ukraine has said it is checking unconfirmed information that Russia may have used chemical weapons in Mariupol. Russia-backed separatists have refused to use chemical weapons.
In peacetime, Azovstal Iron and Steel Works pumped out 4 million tons of steel a year, 3.5 million tons of hot metal and 1.2 million tons of rolled steel.
Like the city’s other Illich steel and ironworks, Azovstal is owned by Metinvest, the group controlled by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man.
A Russian separatist deputy commander said on Monday on Russian state television that Moscow had captured 80% of the port, but that resistance continued and that Ukrainian forces had all tried to “go against the Azovstal factory”.
He described the factory as a “fortress in a city”.
The city’s defenders include Ukrainian Marines, motorized brigades, a National Guard brigade and the Azov Regiment, a militia created by right-wing extremist nationalists who were later incorporated into the National Guard.
It is the Azov regiment, whose destruction is among Moscow’s war targets, which is prominently associated with Azov’s, and one of its founders, Andriy Biletskiy, has also called it the “Fortress of Azov”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the invasion a “special operation” for “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine”, but Ukraine and the West say Russia has launched an unprovoked war of aggression.
“Azov is actually in the territory of Azovstal … These are huge areas of workshops that cannot be destroyed from the air, and that is why the Russians are using heavy bombs,” said Sergiy Zgurets, a military analyst.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that more than 1,000 soldiers from Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, including 162 officers, had surrendered in Mariupol, although Ukraine has not confirmed this.
Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Oleksiy Arestovych later said that members of the 36th Marine Brigade had managed to break through in a “very risky maneuver” to join the Azov regiment.
“The 36th Brigade avoided being ripped to pieces and now has serious additional options, essentially to get another chance,” he said.
The lack of mobile reception and internet in the city means that the information is sparse. Ukraine has kept tight controls on things like the number of troops that can compromise their defenses.
Azov’s Biletskiy told Ukraine’s NV news site on March 20 that Ukraine had a total of 3,000 warriors defending the city against up to 14,000 Russians.
HARD TO OCCUPY
The private US satellite company Maxar was able to look down on the furious battles from space on Tuesday.
“Smoke and fire were observed coming from a number of buildings throughout the western and eastern part of the city, as well as in and near the Azovstal iron and steel factory – the site of ongoing fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces,” it said.
An EU security source told Reuters it was too difficult to say how long the Ukrainians could last, and also difficult for Russia to occupy the entire city because of the industrial complexes. “There are underground tunnel systems under the steel plant.”
“Mariupol is very important to Putin because after a victory there (and the surrender of Azov troops) he can claim that the ‘denazification’ process is successful,” the source added.
An assistant to Mariupol’s mayor said on Wednesday that Russia planned to celebrate the victory in the city on May 9, the date on which Moscow marks the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with an annual parade in Red Square.
Zhdanov, the military analyst, said he saw little chance that Ukrainian forces from outside would break through Russia’s siege.
“How many supplies the defenders have, and how long they can last, is anyone’s guess. But they have no other way out. They are surrounded on all sides, they must stand to the last. If they give in, they will not be spared. ,” he said.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Edited by Grant McCool)