A pro-Russian soldier standing near a burnt out building in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, April 10, 2022. Image: Screengrab / BBC

Ukraine’s southern city of Mariupol has essentially fallen but the fight’s final act is still to come: Russian troops who control the city’s ruins must overcome the last outpost of desperate Ukrainian resistance in a fortified industrial complex.

The last defenders of the port city on the Azov Sea have refused demands, issued by Russian forces today and over the weekend, to surrender.

Despite their ongoing defiance of superior attacking forces, the fate of the Ukrainian fighters – trapped in a situation that multiple media and commentators have germanely compared to the most hellish street battle in military history – points to a hole at the center of the Ukrainian military.

Mariupol’s defenders have been inevitably forced back because Kiev has been unable to launch any mobile operation to relieve them or save their city. This could point to shortcomings in Ukraine’s maneuver capabilities at a time when a sweeping Russian offensive is brewing in the east.

It is possible that Kiev is holding back its key mobile units – grouped in a 40,000-man armor and artillery-heavy front against Russian separatists in the east – for the decisive battle looming in the Donbass region.

Or, Kiev realized it could not conduct an ambitious, long-range operation toward Mariupol in the teeth of heavy Russian air and ground forces. 

This has essentially doomed the defenders to a hopeless battle for time: Their fortitude ties down Russian units that could otherwise fight elsewhere. And battlefield preparation – Russian bombardments and local attacks to seize assault balconies – is already underway in what looks to be the key arena of this war, the Donbass.

Though the sun is setting on Mariupol’s defenders, the fact that after seven weeks the attackers have been unable to quell the resistance of outnumbered and outgunned troops also raises questions about Moscow’s military capabilities.

Russia’s infantry will be front and center in the battle for Donbas. Image: Tass

The failed Russian campaign in the north – an attempted coup de main, followed by a series of failed siege attempts – is very different from what has transpired in the south. There, Mariupol is the only significant city that Russian forces have not just laid siege to, but actually stormed.

That has led to the fiercest combat of the war so far. Russia’s struggle to seize a city with a pre-war population of 430,000 makes it unlikely that the Kremlin can ever marshal enough manpower to assault Kiev – a vaster conurbation with a pre-war population of 2.9 million.

While Kiev’s capture might have offered brand value for the Kremlin, Mariupol is arguably more crucial for both strategic and political reasons.

Strategically, it is a central node on the east-west land corridor that links Crimea to Russia proper. It is also a key Azov seaport and communications artery on a north-south axis serving the Donbass region that Russia is determined to capture.

Politically, it is the home base of the ultra-nationalist Azov Regiment, the highly motivated fighting unit that prevented Russian separatists from taking the Russian-speaking city in 2014.

Thereafter, incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, Azov fought effectively against separatists in Lugansk and Donetsk, while widening its activities into the civic and youth education spheres.

Azov controversially enjoys links to the global white supremacy movement, includes far-rightists in its ranks and sports Nazi-style insignia. Its furious defense of Mariupol is ennobling the unit in Ukrainian eyes, while international media are largely overlooking its dubious background and focusing on its impressive combat capabilities.

The unit’s annihilation is a, perhaps the, centerpiece of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s oft-stated aim of “denazifying” Ukraine. That message has got immense play across Russia. 

The capture of Azov troops – especially those who sport Nazi tattoos – and more foreign mercenaries – two Britons have already been taken from among surrendered Ukrainian Marines and paraded on TV – would provide the Kremlin with a propaganda windfall.

Russian forces fire at an apartment building in Mariupol, Ukraine on March 11, 2022. Photo: Screengrab / CNN

Before falling back to the sprawling, 11-square kilometer Azovstal steel plant, the city’s defenders – Azov, a Marine brigade and a motorized infantry brigade – were forced into a fighting retreat after battle opened on February 24.

Azov has posted online footage of what looks like a skillful defense: The use of mortars to strike armored vehicles hiding in the shadow of tall apartments, the close ambush of tanks in streets, the hurling of grenades over garden walls.

But as firepower thundered down, the city was rubbled. Footage shows apartment blocks burned out by blazes, multiple buildings holed or collapsed by direct tank or artillery fire, and entire neighborhoods leveled by massed artillery, rocketry or bombing.

Civilians report living for weeks in basements as battle raged in the streets and Russian units ground forward.

With their lines of retreat cut by Russian blocking forces, the defenders found themselves surrounded. The Marines, running out of ammunition, were reportedly decimated as they sought to break out.

The Russians claimed over 1,000 Ukrainian Marines were captured. Survivors not killed or captured regrouped with Azov in the steel complex, leaving the city largely in Russian hands.

“Russian forces likely captured the port of Mariupol on April 16 despite Ukrainian General Staff denials, reducing organized Ukrainian resistance in the city to the Azovstal factory in eastern Mariupol,” the US-based Institute for the Study of War said in an email sent to reporters.

But the holdouts remain defiant. Speaking of his colleagues in a grim social media post last week from what looked like a bunker, Azov’s commander in Mariupol, Denys Prokopenko, said, ‘These are real men who have chosen the path of war.”

“We will continue to carry out combat tasks,” added Marine commander Serhii Volyna. “Our morale is strong. We know what we are doing and why we are here.”

Asia Times has no information about ration, water and ammunition supplies inside the defenses, nor of the situation for the wounded.

Multiple commentators have for weeks been predicting an imminent end to Mariupol’s suffering, but rivers of blood could still be shed. The Azov Regiment chose the metallurgical plant wisely, for similar sites were transformed into meat grinders in one of history’s most notorious slaughter grounds.

On August 23, 1942, Nazi Germany’s Sixth Army advanced into Stalingrad, a city on the Volga River. Leveled by German carpet bombing, the ruins offered the Soviet defenders – ordered to take “not a single step backward” – ideal fighting positions.

The carnage was especially harrowing in the city’s industrial district, consisting of huge factories – the Barrikady, Red October and the Tractor factory. Transformed into fortresses, the fighting there began on October 23.

Despite multiple assaults with heavy infantry and specialist assault engineers, the Germans were unable to take the district before being surrounded themselves by a huge Soviet counterattack in November.

Frozen, starving and decimated, Germans finally surrendered in February 1943. It was a hinge point in World War II. The Germans, trained in combined-arms warfare, called the close combat in Stalingrad’s streets, factories and sewers “rattenkrieg” – “rat war.”

Now, decades later, the jackboot is on the other foot: Russian soldiers face a huge factory complex occupied by highly motivated troops. Though last stands are rare in military history, Azov may have no choice but to go down fighting.

“By any objective analysis, their situation is pretty hopeless – clearly the rest of the Ukrainian Army is not in a position to resupply them,” Richard Dannat, a retired British general, said in a radio interview.

Referring to Moscow’s high-volume hatred of the Azov Regiment, he added: “They have got no option but to continue to hold out and fight because their future is pretty bleak.”

A traumatized-looking German officer in the ruins of the Barrikady Factory, Stalingrad, 1942. Photo: Bundesarchiv

It is unclear how many Russian units are deployed in the city.

Some media report there are 12 Battalion Tactical Groups, the basic combined arms unit that Russia has deployed in this war. However, BTGs used poor tactics in the north – sticking to predictable road routes and failing to protect their armor with infantry.

There are also believed to be Russian Marines in the city, as well as unidentified Spetsnaz (special forces) and GRU (military intelligence) subunits.

What is clear, from footage shot by independent, pro-Russian YouTubers in Mariupol, is that experienced and motivated Donbass militiamen are doing much of the fighting – some of it, literally room-to-room, flushing out snipers in multi-story apartment blocks.

Another unit that has outflanked the Ukrainian positions by advancing, together with armor, along the coast, is the Chechen auxiliaries sent to the fight by close Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov.

Fierce, well-equipped light infantry, their senior leaders fought in the Chechen Wars, subsequently put down an insurgency in their country, and years before Russian invaded Ukraine, deployed in both Donbass and Syria.

What is not known is how many casualties these units have incurred and what appetite remains for an assault into the teeth of Azovstal’s defenses. The steel plant is currently under heavy bombardment – the preliminary softening up process.

Azovstal is riddled with extensive underground facilities offering defenders cover from fire and avenues for counterattacks. Attackers would also have to overcome ambushes, booby traps and snipers in a labyrinth where armor and air power cannot be effectively used.

But infantry may not have to storm in.

While the world has been shocked by the attacks on Mariupol’s maternity hospital and theater, Russia could take off the gloves altogether. Nightmare weapons exist that can liquidate deeply dug-in defenders.

Russian forces “…may resort to chemical weapons or some other device to flush out the defenders,” said Dannat. Azov has already claimed that chemical weapons have been used against it, albeit without confirmation.

The “other device” could be thermobarics, or fuel-air explosives. Dropped by bomb or fired by missile, thermobarics act like exploding flamethrowers that literally ignite air.

A member of the Azov Battalion, wearing the insignia of Azov’s special operations unit, takes aim. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, there is a complication.

Unconfirmed footage circulated on social media and aired by Western broadcasters shows Ukrainian civilians – women and children – sheltering in bunkrooms in what look like cellars or basements in the factory.

While there is no indication that the civilians were forced into the plant by Azov, Moscow claims Ukrainian forces are using human shields. Chemical and thermobaric weapons are indiscriminate and if their use on the plant killed civilians, Russia’s already blackened image would be further besmirched.

Absent a special weapons attack, the attackers are left with the option of besieging the factory and starving out the defenders – or advancing into murderous close combat against men who look willing to fight to the last round.