A member of the Azov Battalion, wearing the insignia of Azov's special operations unit, takes aim. Photo: WikiCommons

Moscow can finally declare a significant victory in its war in Ukraine, as the defenders of the most fiercely embattled city appear to have abandoned their last-ditch defensive position.  

An ongoing ceasefire and surrender of Ukrainian troops who had retreated to and been surrounded in, but continued to resist from, the fortress-like Azovstal Steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol ends a modern epic of armed defiance.

History will judge who wins the moral victory. The outnumbered, outgunned Ukrainian defenders who held for so long, in such terrible conditions, against such appalling odds? Or the attackers who finally overcame them?

Regardless, the military victory is Russia’s.

An unknown number of Russian and pro-Russian troops were engaged in a weeks-long holding operation to keep Avostal’s defenders pinned down. Those troops can now join their comrades in operations further north.

One Russian offensive prong has advanced up the Dniepr Valley, but stalled south of Zaporizhzhia. A westward strike has failed to capture Mykolaiv, a key gateway to the Black Sea port of Odessa.

But the main Russian effort – where the outcome of the war is likely to be decided – is around a 120km deep, 75km wide Ukrainian salient in Donbas.

With an information war raging alongside the physical carnage, there is another potential victory for Moscow.

The steel plant’s core defenders, the Azov Battalion, were a key target of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated aim of “de-Nazification.” Their capture may electrify a Russian population who have had few wins to celebrate in a war launched on February 24.

But the ongoing evacuation of the plant is cloaked in opacity. Questions hover over the fate of the defenders – and even whether the Azov Battalion’s key personnel have surrendered.

Moreover, the wider battle of Mariupol provides a signpost to the future course of the war. It has exposed major chinks in the armor of both the Russian attackers and the Ukrainian defenders.

A battle rages in Mariupol as Russian forces pit firepower against defenders’ manpower. Photo: WikiCommons

A full surrender?

In two months of battle, Russian and Russian separatist troops from Donetsk took the bulk of the city, leading Russian President Vladimir Putin to publicly declare victory on April 21.

However, the Ukrainian defenders were not playing to Putin’s script.

Having fought a rearguard action through the ruins of the city, they dug deep into a fallback position in the vast, fortress-like Azovstal Steel Works. Their resistance in that location captured the attention of the world, making clear that the only Ukrainian city of significant size that Russian forces had actually stormed had not entirely fallen.

While the attackers’ eventual victory in the Russian-speaking port was never in question, Azovstal’s defenders continued to be a thorn in the side of their attackers.

Holed up in a position where they could not conduct significant operations, they were pummeled with artillery and airstrikes. However, as is clear from footage released over the internet by the defenders, they remained capable of conducting small, harassing operations – raids and patrols.

Resistance finally ceased on May 16.

Russian media TASS, quoting the Russian Ministry of Defense, says 1,730 militants, including 80 wounded, had surrendered since May 16. Of them, 771 were members of the crack Azov Regiment, TASS reported.

A battalion of Azov personnel are believed to have been deployed in Mariupol where they formed the backbone of the resistance. With a battalion numbering between 600 and 1,000 troops, TASS’s report, if accurate, indicates that the bulk of the unit has fallen into Russian hands.

TV footage showed surrendered personnel being searched and filtered before being put on buses. Those captured included female soldiers, police officers and one man with a small British flag on his sleeve.

According to reports, the wounded were being treated, while hundreds were taken to prison facilities in Russian-controlled territory.  

The fortress-like Azovstal steel plant, before the battle started. Photo: WikiCommons

Unanswered questions

TASS estimates there were 6,000 defenders of Mariupol, but it was never clear how many were in the plant – vague estimates were 2,000, though not all were combatants. Nor it is known how many were killed.

Tellingly, there is no indication, as yet, that the Azov battalion commander or his deputy  – both of whom won high profiles for their belligerent statements during the battle – are among those in Russian hands. Both would be key captures and a propaganda gift for the Kremlin.

It seems unlikely that the vast steelworks, and their underground networks – workshops, tunnels and even Soviet-era nuclear fallout shelters – have yet been fully cleared by Russian forces.

The potential presence of booby traps, mines and undetonated munitions presents a risk for those poking into the plant’s many nooks and crannies.

This raises more questions.

Do some diehards remain holed up or hidden in the complex? Have some exfiltrated through the tunnels and rubble, in the hope of making it back to Ukrainian-held territory, more than 100-kilometers away?

Further questions hang over the conditions of the deal that ended the fighting.

The resistance of the defenders, and the enormous firepower that the attackers used to take Mariupol, provided Kiev with a media bonanza. Denis Pushilin, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), said that 60% of the city’s structure cannot be repaired and will have to be rebuilt from scratch.

Now the Ukrainian government, citing humanitarian concerns to save lives, seeks to paint the end of the hopeless fight as a “mission accomplished.” Indeed, the long defense tied down enemy troops and buoyed national morale.  

But militarily, there is no question that this is a surrender.

The defenders are not being allowed to leave the plant armed, with flags flying. They are prisoners of war and are being overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross. That status has fueled hopes and rumors of a POW exchange.

Ukraine’s Azov Brigade. Photo: Facebook

Azov in enemy hands

However, the Azov Regiment is hugely emotive in Russia. There has been debate in the Russian Duma, with some lawmakers demanding that Azov troops should be tried – and possibly executed – as war criminals and neo-Nazis.

Mariupol, a key communications hub on both north-south and east-west axes, was always going to be a key objective of Russia’s “special military operation.”

Strategically, it is the main node in the east-west Azov Sea corridor Russia has won, linking Crimea to Russia. It also anchors Donetsk, the self-proclaimed, Russian-backed breakaway republic in Donbas, to the coast.

Logistically, it is a key port and politically, it is the home base of the Ukrainian unit most hated by Russians: The Azov Regiment.

The Azov Regiment drew widespread distaste before the war and had been declared persona non grata by NATO trainers working with the Ukrainian armed forces. Some members expressed far-right views and sported neo-Nazi insignia and body decorations, and the regiment used the global white supremacy network to recruit.

Regardless, its reputation as a crack combat unit is not in question.

It came into being as a freikorps in 2014, when strife was unleashed between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces. At a time when Ukraine’s army was largely ineffective, the Azov Regiment gained renown for keeping Mariupol in Kiev’s hands.

It added to its laurels in subsequent combat in the Donbas – though it also gained a reputation there for abductions and torture.

Since the Russian invasion of February 24, it has fortified its reputation as a fierce fighting force across Ukraine. While other Azov units operate in the north, in the south, the battalion in Mariupol provided the backbone of the defense in the biggest streetfight of the war so far.

Veterans of the Azov Volunteer Battalion, which took part in the war with Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine, on March 14, 2020. Photo: AFP / Sergei Supinsky

Struggling offense, hopeless defense

In Mariupol, the Russians are believed to have deployed about a dozen Battalion Tactical Groups – self-contained, combined-arms armored units – a brigade of naval infantry, un-specified special forces (spetsnaz) and military intelligence (GRU) units, Chechen light infantry and military police, and battalions of Donetsk militants.

Moscow also deployed heavy air and artillery assets.

Their opponents were less numerous. A brigade of marines, a brigade of mechanized infantry and a battalion of the Azov Regiment. The battle pitched approximately 20 attacking battalions against seven defending battalions.

The toughness of the fight should provide Russian commanders with food for thought in future operations.  

Mariuopol’s pre-war population was 446,000. Prior to its seizure, the most strategically vital settlements Russia had taken were Kherson (population 289,000) and Izyum (46,000).

Kherson provides Crimea with water supplies, while Izyum provides Russian forces with the northern shoulder of their salient in the Donbas.

It seems unlikely that Russia can marshal the troops necessary to make a second attempt on Kiev (population 2.8 million) or on Kharkiv (population 1.4 million). Indeed, Russian forces have retreated after failing to take both cities.

The huge firepower used to level Mariupol points to another issue.

Like US forces in the latter stages of their war in Vietnam, it appears as if Russian commanders in Ukraine are using firepower as a substitute for maneuver or ground assault.

Russian forces were expected to launch a major, World War II-type armored pincer operation to close the 75-km Ukrainian wide salient Donbas. Despite the extreme vulnerability of the Ukrainian position, that attack has not gone well.

One Russian BTG appears to have been wiped out by Ukrainian fire attempting a river crossing.

This leaves artillery as the preferred arm, leading to a grinding, World War I-style battle.

But the fate of the defenders of Mariupol pinpoints a strategic weakness of the Ukrainian forces, too.

With the bulk of their professional army, and the bulk of its heavy equipment fixed in place and being hammered in Donbas, Kiev has no mobile counter-attack force with which it can seize the initiative from the Russians.

That could change. Recent Ukrainian victories around Kharkiv may free up units that can be massed to assault the northern Russian flank in Donbas. However, it remains to be seen when Kiev can undertake such an ambitious counter-offensive.

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