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Ukraine's last stand in Mariupol: The Azovstal iron and steel works

Take 90 seconds to watch this drone’s-eye view of the last remaining Ukrainian redoubt in Ukraine’s most punished city. And try to imagine having to organize a ground assault on it, knowing there are hundreds or possibly thousands of enemy troops lying in wait inside. Four square miles of labyrinthine steel and concrete, with small openings and dark passageways everywhere you look. It’s like a blast-proof Alamo except with many, many more potential positions for snipers.

It’s a waking nightmare.

Radio Free Europe has photos from the grounds of the plant taken in 2016, showing what the Russians will be looking at as they make their way into the complex. No one knows how many people are inside but the fighting force reportedly consists of Ukrainian marines and members of the Azov Battalion, the far-right militia that’s driven Russia’s endless propaganda about Ukraine being a country of “Nazis.” One of the founders of the Battalion claimed a month ago that 3,000 Ukrainian fighters were left in Mariupol; Moscow believes there 2,500 Azov members plus 400 foreign volunteers still inside the plant; Ukrainian officials insist that at least 1,000 civilians are also on the premises. Where are they all hiding?

That’s the other quirk about Azovstal. As daunting as it is from the air, we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Here’s one artist’s rendering of the picture below ground:

“It is basically a city under a city,” said one Russian advisor of the tunnels under Azovstal. Russian troops would somehow have to take that city. The Times claims there’s even a “sophisticated communication systems connecting the basement levels” that allows the Ukrainians to coordinate, making it that much harder for Russia to advance. More:

The network of underground spaces, which is now pivotal to the survival of the holed-up soldiers and civilians, was originally built to transport equipment between buildings and to access the undersides of ground-level machinery for maintenance, according to Metinvest, the company that operated the mill. There was no planned military use for the underground areas before the war, the company said…

“You’d be surprised at how well people can survive big bombs in a facility like that,” said [Fred] Kagan, adding that the Russians have not exhibited extraordinary precision in their targeting.

The Russians are going to test Kagan’s theory. Ukraine says it intercepted a phone call involving a Russian soldier in which he talks about huge bunker-buster bombs raining death on the Ukrainians hiding out in the plant:

Russia will try to flatten the plant, killing any Ukrainians who remain above ground and entombing the ones underneath in the wreckage. If that doesn’t work, who knows? “The Azovstal factory is an enormous space with so many buildings that the Russians … simply can’t find [the Ukrainian forces],” said one Ukrainian military analyst to an Australian paper. “That’s why [the Russians] started talking about trying a chemical attack, that’s the only way to smoke them out.” Right, WMD might do the trick — but isn’t there an easier way to finish off the Ukrainians that doesn’t involve Russian troops running headfirst into sniper fire on the grounds of what remains of the plant?

Michael Clarke, the former director general of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said pursuing determined soldiers who were defending tunnels was a “mug’s game” and a “foolish thing to do”.

He said: “The tunnels give them mobility underground so that they can pop up in different places. If the Russians are able to simply contain the Azov steel site, they can surround it and starve them out. No sensible commander would try to do more than that, unless the Kremlin was going berserk.”

The Kremlin may be going berserk. One spokesman for Russian separatists in the Donbas said that “The storm groups selected for the assault have begun their work” at the plant, which implies a ground assault. Russian media is also claiming that separatist forces have attempted to storm the plant. Why not just secure a perimeter around it, lay siege, and wait for the Ukrainians to run out of food? They must be close to starvation already after weeks of Russia’s army advancing further and further into Mariupol.

Maybe Putin has concluded that he doesn’t have the luxury of waiting weeks for a siege to finish off the Ukrainians inside Azovstal. Remember, he may be working on a self-imposed deadline here. He’s not going to defeat Ukraine by May 9 but he’s likely to finally have Mariupol in hand by then if his force at the plant pushes hard.

It’s a matter of time before Russia takes it but whether they do so with more or fewer losses is up to them. Russia being Russia, they’ll maximize their own casualties in pursuit of victory. They did invite Ukrainian forces inside Azovstal to surrender this morning and spare themselves a fight but were refused, which points to another way in which Russian tactics backfire on them. Having heard what the Russian army did in Bucha and knowing what sort of treatment awaits them once they’re in Russian custody, death is rationally preferable to the Ukrainians than surrender. If you know you’re going to be abused and eventually murdered if you give up, you simply won’t give up. Result: More dead Russian soldiers before Mariupol falls. Oh well.