Logan Spurrier ‘22
Mariupol, Ukraine is an industrial port city on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov. Before the start of the ongoing conflict, the city was home to approximately 450,000 civilians, many of whom had jobs related to the metallurgist enterprises within the city.
Now, the city is a carcass of its former self, with Ukrainian authorities estimating that roughly 90% of the infrastructure is “damaged or destroyed.”
When Russian president Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” into Ukraine, one of the strategic goals outlined for Russian forces was the coastal city of Mariupol. Not only could the industrial facilities prove useful going forward, but it served to be a target of ideological importance.
During the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War, separatists from the breakaway regions of Crimea and the Donbas successfully managed to take control of the city. However, determined Ukrainian forces managed to wrestle control back permanently from the separatists. Subsequent attacks by separatists attempted to reclaim Mariupol once again, but ultimately failed.
A particular unit proved instrumental in the recapture and defense of the city during the 2014 war: the infamous Azov Battalion.
At the time of the outbreak of hostilities, the Azov Battalion was nothing more than a paramilitary unit that drew members who mainly identified themselves as neo-Nazis. It was not uncommon to witness members wearing symbols that were similar, or the same, as those worn by Nazis roughly 60 years before. The battalion was also noted to have been responsible for multiple heinous crimes, against enemies and civilians alike.
Such realities mean that Azov, and therefore Mariupol, were (and are) seen by pro-Russians as the epitome of “neo-Nazism.”
Despite this, they had proven themselves to be professional and capable fighters in combat. For this, and their role in the city’s recapture, Azov (Battalion) was based in Mariupol when the unit was molded into the Ukrainian military proper.
Now, Azov, alongside members of various other military units, currently hold a piece of land that is approximately four-square miles in total.
Besieged since February 25th, and fully surrounded since March 2nd, 2022, the Ukrainian defenders have slowly been pushed deeper and deeper into the ruined city by the combined forces of Russian and separatist troops.
By March 5th, things were deteriorating in the city. Supplies were running low for the city’s residents, and any services (lighting, heat, water) had long since been cut off. The Red Cross had declared the situation as “dire,” and began subsequent evacuations of civilians from the city.
However, it wasn’t until March 12th that Russians began pushing into the city. The Ukrainian military stated on that day the outskirts of Mariupol had fallen into enemy hands. By March 18th, the Mariupol Airport had fallen into separatist hands.
Mariupol Mayor, Vadym Boychenko, claimed that the Russians forces had “entered deep within the city” on March 27th, 2022. The next day, he claimed the city was “in the hands of the occupiers.”
Through the next few days, Russian forces continued to advance on the remaining pockets of Ukrainian forces within the urban area of the city. By April 16th, the Ukrainians had been cleared of the city proper, leaving only those who retreated to the Azovstal Metallurgic Plant left as resistance within the city.
As of April 19th, 2022, an estimated 2,500 Ukrainian forces (mainly members of Azov) control a plot of land approximately four-square miles in size, which is made up of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works Plant. The presence of a large, extensive underground network of tunnels and caves exist under the plant has been noted, however.
Built to house all the plants’ workers (who numbered in the thousands) in the event of a nuclear strike, these repurposed catacombs could prove useful in grinding down the Russian advance. The underground complex is dug deep enough that it is practically immune from any conventional bombing attacks and proves extensive enough that an attack by Russian forces would certainly result in an unacceptable meat grinder.
It remains to be seen how this situation plays out. The defenders have refused multiple calls for surrender and have claimed they are willing to fight to the death. If they continue this course, the Russians will be forced to consider their options for removing the last bastion of resistance in Mariupol.