The Last Siege of Mariupol, Ending a Long Russian Siege

Kyiv, Ukraine – Soldiers defend Ukrainian city of Mariupol They laid down their arms at the sprawling steel mill that had served as their last stronghold for weeks, ending months of bloody battle over the industrial port that had become a symbol of Russian invasion Ukraine’s resistance.

More than 260 soldiers were transferred to Russian-controlled territory on Tuesday morning after Ukraine declared the end of hostilities in Mariupol. Video footage released by the Russian Defense Ministry showed the men patting the ground and escorting them to waiting buses. Some were on stretchers, some were wrapped in blood-stained bandages, and many were emaciated after weeks of surviving on minimal rations.

Hundreds of fighters are waiting for an evacuation that will make them prisoners of war. Ukrainian officials have said they hope the surrendered troops will return home as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia, something Moscow has not publicly agreed to.

Completing the capture of Mariupol is a long-awaited victory for Russia, which has struggled to achieve its goals against the Ukrainian armed forces ever since. launch his invasion On February 24. But the victory came at a heavy cost. By holding out for weeks in smaller pockets, the Ukrainian defenders tied up large numbers of Russian forces, preventing them from spreading elsewhere.

Mikhailo Podolak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said the weeks of stubborn Mariupol resistance contributed to the setbacks by Russian forces in their offensive in eastern Ukraine. “This completely changed the course of the war,” Mr. Podolak said on Twitter.

Ukraine said more than 260 fighters had been evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol after months of resistance against Russian forces. The Wall Street Journal explains how the dramatic siege of a Soviet-era factory became a focal point of the war. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermoshenko

By the time of Tuesday’s surrender, however, the resistance was in Azovstal steel plant It had more symbolic significance than strategic importance. For weeks, Russian forces have controlled a land corridor linking Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to the eastern Donbass region, where Russian-backed separatists hold territory.

While some Russian units are expected to be redeployed from Mariupol to elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, analysts say it is unlikely to fundamentally alter the military balance there. Despite gaining ground, Russian forces struggled to conquer it Ukrainian Army in the East Despite weeks of continuous bombing and attacks.

Mariupol is a city with a population of 430 thousand people Before the war, he suffered one of the worst casualties in the Russian war on Ukraine. The city has become a symbol of the price that the Ukrainians will pay for their defiance, beyond recognition after the indiscriminate bombing and shelling. More than 10,000 civilians may have been killed and about 90% of housing was destroyed or damaged in the fighting, according to the city’s mayor, Vadim Boychenko.

The surrender of the last defenders of Mariupol does not change the war from Ukraine’s perspective. Mariupol has already been cut off From the territory controlled by Ukraine. Ukraine’s hopes of victory currently hing on the main battlefront in the east and the continued supply of weapons from the west.

Defenders of Azovstal demanded in videos posted online for weapons, food and other supplies as Russian forces closed their doors and hopes for survival dwindled.

A bus carrying Ukrainian troops left Mariupol from the besieged steel plant in Azovstal.


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Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

A Ukrainian official said 264 service members had been evacuated, including 53 seriously injured.


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Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

As the fighters endured relentless Russian assaults while living in bunkers under the vast compound, they Wives and mothers She organized a public campaign urging the international community to step in and help negotiate their release before it was too late.

The soldiers’ families sent letters to Mr. Zelensky, held rallies across the country and met Pope Francis at the Vatican. “You are our last hope. Please don’t let them die,” 27-year-old Katerina Prokopenko told the Pope at the end of his public audience last week. Her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Denis Prokopenko, was one of the leaders in the Azovstal.

The wives of several advocates told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that they still had no information about their husbands’ whereabouts and feared they would not return home.

Victoria Lyachuk – whose husband, Oleksiy, the father of her two young children, was one of the men fighting at Azovstal – said there was no contact with him. “I still hope for a miracle,” she said.

Hundreds of civilians who took refuge in the steel mill have been escorted through a UN-brokered humanitarian corridor in recent weeks, but fighters have continued to fight and have repeatedly vowed not to surrender.

The hardened forces, many of whom are members of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, said they faced a choice between continuing the fight or being killed by the Russian occupiers.

Moscow promised mercy to any Azovstal fighters who drop their weapons. The Kremlin said on Tuesday that the evacuees would be treated humanely “in accordance with international standards”.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said 264 service members, including 53 seriously injured, have been evacuated so far. The wounded were taken for treatment in Novoazovsk, while the rest were taken to the village of Olenivka, both under Russian control.

At a news conference later on Tuesday, Ms Malliar declined to say how many fighters had remained inside the steel plant since evacuation efforts were underway. “The only thing that can be said is that the Ukrainian state is doing everything that is possible and impossible,” she said.

Tuesday’s evacuation of the Kremlin prompted pro-Kremlin commentators, including Igor Girkin, the former intelligence officer who led a Moscow-backed separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine in 2014, to demand that Azovstal defenders be killed. Vyacheslav Volodin, the head of Russia’s parliament, said the soldiers are war criminals who should be tried and not exchanged for Russian prisoners of war.

Russian President

Russian President Vladimir Putin

He portrayed his invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” to defend Russian speakers from the Nazis running the country, he said, without evidence. The Azov Regiment, which originated in 2014 as a far-right paramilitary force but has since become a unit of Ukraine’s National Guard, has been a favorite target of Russian propaganda, and Moscow publishes a daily tally of the number of Ukrainian “nationalists” it claims to be killed.

Mr. Zelensky said in a video statement on Tuesday that Azovstal defenders were receiving medical treatment and called for their lives to be saved.

“We hope to save the lives of our children,” said Mr. Zelensky, explaining the decision to end the resistance in Azovstal. “I want to emphasize that Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes. This is our principle, I believe that every suitable person will understand these words.”

Mariupol was attacked in 2014-2015 by Russian-backed separatists, but was successfully defended by Ukrainian forces including the Azov Regiment. Until the invasion this year, the life of the inhabitants of the coastal city on the Sea of ​​Azov was cut off from many major cities of Ukraine.

Pro-Russian forces stood on guard before evacuating wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the besieged Azovstal steel plant.


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Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

The Azovstal Steel Factory is a Cold War-era labyrinth of warehouses, furnaces, and tunnels.


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Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters

Known for its sprawling steel mills, Mariupol has become home to more than 100,000 people who have fled separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine in search of safety or jobs. Mariupol, with its parks and beaches, prospered despite Russian efforts to squeeze its economy by blocking the arrival of large merchant ships.

When Russian forces invaded in February, they sabotaged Mariupol’s cellular communications network almost as soon as it arrived, cutting it off from all external communications. The city soon became too dangerous and too far for most journalists to document the conflict.

Russian forces besieged Mariupol by 1 March and proceeded to reduce it to rubble, killing thousands and depriving the city of food, water, and electricity.

Stepan Holovko, an Azov soldier who has been fighting to defend Mariupol since the war began, said the Ukrainians inflicted heavy losses on the Russian infantry, prompting Russian forces to destroy the city using tactics previously seen in Syria or Chechnya.

“They destroyed all the houses along the front line with tanks and artillery, forcing us to withdraw,” said Mr. Holovko.

Wives and parents of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in a steel plant came to Kyiv to rally support for their loved ones last month.


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Justyna Mielnikiewicz / MAPS for The Wall Street Journal

Ukrainian fighters from the Azov battalion, marines, border guards and police defended their shrinking surroundings as Russian bombing pushed them back. Towards the end of April, the Azovstal plant became the last stronghold.

No one knows how many residents of Mariupol remained before the war. Estimates range from 130,000 to 200,000 people.

The Azovstal Factory is a Cold War-era labyrinth of warehouses, furnaces, tunnels and railroad tracks covering four square miles on the east bank of the Kalmios River that splits Mariupol in two. One evacuee who worked at the factory said there are 40 bunkers underground, five of which are stocked with basic supplies and triple bunk beds to host civilians.

With the closure of Russian forces, the roads to and from the factory were increasingly cut off, making it nearly impossible to deliver food, water or weapons to the defenders.

“Close this industrial zone so that not even a fly can enter,” Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised meeting on April 21.

Wreckage of a Russian helicopter in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on Monday.


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Bernat Armango/The Associated Press

Turkey in recent days has offered to evacuate wounded fighters from the steel plant by sea, saying it has a ship waiting in Istanbul that can take them to safety. Russia did not accept the offer.

Ukrainian officials said the Ukrainian military attempted a major push in the direction of Mariupol over the weekend, attacking Russian lines near Huliaipole in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. Officials said the attack failed, with Russian fire destroying several tanks and armored vehicles and inflicting heavy casualties. Video footage from the area showed the burning of four Ukrainian tanks.

Lieutenant Colonel Prokopenko said in a video released late Monday that he was complying with orders from the Ukrainian military command to abandon his men and save their lives.

A message posted on the official Telegram page of Azov on Monday night acknowledged the end of the fighting: “The defenders of Mariupol carried out their orders, despite all the difficulties.”

write to Vivian Salama at [email protected], Matthew Luxmoore at [email protected] and James Marson at [email protected]

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