KYIV, Ukraine — After weeks of shelling and shelling, the Russian siege of the critical Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has resulted in a last stand by a few thousand Ukrainian troops, holed up in a sprawling, smoldering steelworks receding towards the sea .
Russia had given Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol until Sunday morning to lay down their arms or be “eliminated”. On Sunday, factory forces ignored the deadline and Ukrainian officials vowed they would not surrender. In response, the Russian assault intensified, with missiles and bombs hitting the city and further attacks occurring near the factory, according to the Ukrainian military.
The confrontation at the Azovstal steel plant near the port of Mariupol has become Ukraine’s last line of defense to prevent Russia from securing a strategically important land bridge between its Crimean stronghold and eastern Europe. Ukraine, which Russia is struggling to control. Capturing Mariupol would be a major victory for Russia that could bolster its drive to command eastern Ukraine, cut off an important Ukrainian port, and bolster Russian troop morale.
But Ukrainian officials said on Sunday the fight was not over for Mariupol, which for two months has tied up badly needed Russian troops and resources elsewhere.
“The city still hasn’t fallen,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told ABC News on Sunday. “There are always our military forces. So they will fight to the end, and for now they are still in Mariupol.
Taking Mariupol would be one of Russia’s first major victories in recent weeks, a period in which it withdrew from the region around Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and lost the one of its most important warships, the Moskva. The sinking of the Moskva sparked strong reactions in some corners of the Russian media, which called for harsh reprisals. Russia has recently shifted its focus to eastern Ukraine and on Sunday continued to launch missiles at Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city after kyiv, in the northeast of the country.
In Mariupol, in the southeast, it was unclear how many Ukrainian soldiers were still fighting. Russian officials said there were 2,500 troops aligned with Ukraine at the steel plant, including “400 foreign mercenaries”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told news organizations on Saturday that it had been difficult to get precise numbers on Mariupol because “many people have disappeared”. But he said Ukrainian officials believed Russian troops outnumbered Ukrainian forces six times in the city.
One of the groups leading the defense of Mariupol is the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian national guard unit that has drawn far-right fighters from around the world. Moscow has used the presence of far-right movements in Ukraine as a pretext to invade the country. Russian troops also include many far-right fighters.
Mr Zelensky said Ukrainian officials spoke with soldiers at the steel plant several times a day. “We support them as much as we can,” he said. “But they know they are carrying out one of the most powerful and important missions today.”
Azovstal Iron and Steel Works is one of the largest metallurgical plants in the world and is run by Metinvest, a steel and mining conglomerate owned by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. The factory, which spans more than four square miles, is a maze of railroad tracks, blast furnaces and industrial plants. A military official aligned with Russian forces called the plant “a fortress in the city”, according to Reuters.
Communication systems have been destroyed in Mariupol, making it difficult to communicate with soldiers at the factory or with others in the city.
Russia’s deadline on Sunday raised fears of further carnage in Mariupol, which before the war was a thriving port city on the Sea of Azov, an extension of the Black Sea, and home to around 450,000 people. Mariupol has come under near-constant shelling since late February, including shelling of a maternity ward and a theater that served as a civilian bomb shelter, and many parts of the town have been destroyed.
Mr Zelensky said Russian attacks had already killed tens of thousands of people in Mariupol and more than 100,000 people remained stranded there with little access to food or water. He vowed Saturday to halt all peace talks with Moscow if Russian forces commit further atrocities there. Russia is “deliberately trying to destroy everyone there,” he said.
For more than a month, the Russians blocked humanitarian convoys delivering food and medicine to Mariupol, deepening the crisis there, said Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukrainian human rights ombudsman. Russian forces who control much of the city are only giving residents a loaf of bread and a bottle of water each day, she said, and from Monday they will start requiring residents to they have special permits to leave their homes.
The United Nations has called on Russia to allow civilians to flee Mariupol, so far without success. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Sunday that talks with Russia on a ceasefire along civilian escape routes had failed. “That is why, unfortunately, we are not opening humanitarian corridors today,” she said in a statement.
Yet the governor of Lugansk in eastern Ukraine, Serhiy Haidai, has always encouraged people in the region to evacuate regular trains and buses. “Hurry to your rescue while we can help you,” he wrote in a message on Telegram.
Russia’s new focus on eastern Ukraine suggests that Moscow wants to secure full control of the vast region along its border as a tangible sign of success. The capture of Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine and Kharkiv in the north-east will be crucial to this strategy.
Over the weekend, Russia continued its bombardment of Kharkiv. A barrage of rockets slammed into central Kharkiv on Sunday, setting apartment buildings and a market on fire. The attack left at least five people dead and 13 injured. On Saturday, Russian missiles struck near José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen operation in the city, injuring four people working for the nonprofit group.
The organization, which creates community kitchens in places hit by natural disaster or conflict, said on April 4 it had delivered nearly 300,000 meals in Ukraine, including to bomb shelters, hospitals and churches.
Despite Russia’s military might, Ukrainian forces have continued to successfully defend their country. Last week, two Ukrainian Neptune missiles struck and sank the Moskva, a warship that was the pride of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and had been used to launch cruise missiles deep into Ukraine. It was one of the biggest naval losses in the world since World War II, and it sparked new questions in Russia about what was happening across the border.
Russia said the ship sank due to an accidental fire, while Ukrainian and American officials credited the Ukrainian missiles. The ship had over 500 men, but the death toll was unclear. Days after the sinking of the Moskva, the Russian Defense Ministry released a video purporting to show dozens of uniformed crew members still alive.
On Saturday, Vladimir Solovyov, the host of a popular Russian primetime talk show whose statements often mirror the Kremlin line, began asking what was wrong. If the ship caught fire before it sank, as the Russians claim, then why didn’t it have a system to put out such fires, Mr Soloviev wondered aloud. If the ship was sunk by two Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles, why didn’t it have an anti-missile system?
“Just explain to me how you managed to lose it,” Mr Solovyov asked rhetorically on his Saturday show, “Solovyov Live”.
The segment was unusual, not least because Mr. Solovyov brought up the idea that Ukraine had managed to sink the Moskva. It comes as more pundits and others on television in Russia have begun to label the fighting in Ukraine a ‘war’ – although they have tended to use the term to suggest that the whole of NATO, including the United States, is ganging up on Russia. They do not describe the invasion of Russia itself as part of a war, nor do they mention that the Kremlin started it.
The Kremlin stifled open discussion of the conflict by enacting a law in early March that criminalized the dissemination of any “false information” about what Russia calls its “special military operation”, including calling it a war, with violators facing up to to 15 years in prison. .
While carefully scripted newscasts still use the phrase “military operation,” guests, in the heat of the screams that are a hallmark of Russian TV talk shows, often shout about “war.”
The even more furious tone than usual during discussions of the sinking of the Moskva indicated that many commentators were holding Ukraine to blame. Ignoring the official explanation that it caught fire, for example, Vladimir Bortko, a director and former member of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, said last week that the assault on the ship should be treated as an assault on the Russia itself.
“The special military operation is over; it ended last night when our homeland was attacked,” he said. He suggested that possible responses included bombing kyiv or transport networks that allowed foreign dignitaries to travel – or something even more sinister: “Bomb them once and that’s it.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Kyiv; Jack Nicas from Rio de Janeiro; and Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul. The report was provided by Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine; Cora Engelbrecht from Warsaw; Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkov, Ukraine; and Eduardo Medina from New York.