In what has become a symbol of their fierce defense against Russia, Ukrainian forces are holding onto the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in the besieged city of Mariupol, which continues to come under assault despite the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his defense chief last week to merely blockade the plant.
The pocket of resistance is the last holdout in the strategic port city, which has been largely reduced to rubble amid Russian bombardment. The plant’s tunnel network has sheltered Ukrainian defenders and has become a story of heroism for the country.
Ukrainian officials said Sunday that Russian forces were attempting to storm the factory as well as conducting airstrikes in the surrounding area. "Russian troops are trying to finish off the defenders of Azovstal," Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych wrote on Facebook. Moscow said Monday that it would stop hostilities to allow civilians to escape, but Ukrainian officials said they needed a more substantive safety guarantee.
What is it?
The 90-year-old metallurgical steel plant was almost completely destroyed by Russian forces during the siege of Mariupol and has been surrounded by Russian troops since early March. The entire city has had limited access to food and water throughout the blockade and bombardment.
The factory has since emerged as the last pocket of organized resistance in the siege, with an estimated 2,000 troops and 1,000 civilians said to be holed up in nuclear bunkers underneath the structure.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s National Guard released new video footage of what it said were women and children sheltering in underground tunnels.
“We want to see peaceful skies. We want to breathe in fresh air,” one woman said in the video, according to a translation by the Associated Press. “You have simply no idea what it means for us to simply eat, drink some sweetened tea. For us, it is already happiness.”
What are the conditions inside?
While Ukrainians are holding on, the situation remains dire, military officials inside the plant say.
Video published by Ukrainian forces shows a young girl saying she hasn’t seen the sun since Feb. 27, just after the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also shows a soldier distributing candy to children.
It’s unclear how much food, water and other supplies the survivors have left.
"We are taking casualties,” Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine's 36th Marine brigade forces in Mariupol, said in a video posted to YouTube. “We have very many wounded men. [Some] are dying. ... The situation is rapidly worsening."
Why is the plant so significant to Russia?
The plant itself is not, but Mariupol has been one of Russia’s key objectives in the war. Completing its capture would give Moscow its biggest victory yet, especially since Russia’s efforts to encircle the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, earlier in the war failed.
“Russia’s decision to besiege rather than attack Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant means many Russian units remain fixed in the city and cannot be redeployed,” the British Defense Ministry said Monday. “Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol has also exhausted many Russian units and reduced their combat effectiveness.”
Mariupol would also help Russia establish a land bridge from the Crimean Peninsula — annexed by Moscow eight years ago — to Ukraine’s breakaway republics that are effectively controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
What does Putin say?
On Thursday, the Russian president declared that Mariupol had been "liberated" and publicly told his defense minister to call off the storming of the Azovstal plant, ordering that it be "blocked off" instead.
Putin also called on the remaining Ukrainian forces to lay down their arms — something Ukrainian forces are unwilling to do.
“We will continue to defend it until there is an order to retreat from our military leadership,” Capt. Svyatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, told the New York Times on Sunday. “And if we are going to leave, we are going to leave with our weapons.”