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Ukraine hangs on to Mariupol’s steel mill despite Russian advance. Why it matters

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WATCH: ‘No evidence yet’ that Mariupol has fallen: Biden – Apr 21, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin is claiming control over Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol even as its defenders are still holding out at a giant seaside steel mill.

His statement reflected the importance of the city on the Sea of Azov and appeared to be an attempt to declare victory without storming the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance there: the massive Azovstal plant.

WHY IS MARIUPOL IMPORTANT?

Mariupol, which is part of the industrial region in eastern Ukraine known as Donbas, has been a key Russian objective since the Feb. 24 invasion began.

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Capturing the city would allow the establishment of a land corridor from Russia’s border to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014. It also would deprive Ukraine of a major port and prized industrial assets.

Read more: Here’s why Russia is after Mariupol — and why it may not be the game changer it once was

The seven-week siege has tied up significant numbers of Russian forces, which are badly needed for an offensive elsewhere in Donbas.

The region is where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian government forces since 2014, after the Crimea annexation.

HOW HAS THE RUSSIAN SIEGE GONE?

Since it began March 1, the Russian military has pummeled Mariupol relentlessly with artillery barrages and air raids, flattening most of the once-bustling city.

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The indiscriminate bombardment has hit homes, hospitals and other public buildings, killing thousands. That includes about 300 people killed in an airstrike on the Mariupol Drama Theatre that was being used as a shelter, with officials inscribing the Russian word for “CHILDREN” in huge white letters on the pavement outside.

Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, shown here on April 9, is home to among the last pockets of Ukrainian resistance in the city. Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Mayor Vadym Boychenko told The Associated Press that at least 21,000 people were killed in Mariupol, with bodies “carpeted through the streets.”

He said Russia deployed mobile cremation equipment to methodically dispose of the remains in order to destroy evidence of the massacre and prevent international organizations from documenting “the horror the Russian army is responsible for.” He alleged bodies also were dumped into mass graves outside the city.

He estimated that 120,000 people remain in Mariupol out of a prewar population of about 450,000.

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HOW HAS UKRAINE RESPONDED?

Ukraine sent some of its best troops to defend Mariupol. They included the 36th Marine Brigade, Interior Ministry troops, border guards and the national guard’s Azov Regiment.

The regiment is a seasoned volunteer force that is widely considered one of Ukraine’s most capable units and has been singled out by Russia as a particular villain because of its far-right ideology.

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Ukrainians trapped in Mariupol may have only hours left – Apr 20, 2022

Moscow has deployed fighters from Chechnya, known for their ferocity, to wage street battles in Mariupol. Chechnya’s Moscow-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has repeatedly boasted on social media about defeating Ukrainians in Mariupol, but the fight has continued.

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After weeks of house-to-house battles in which Russia has incurred massive losses, including several senior officers, Mariupol’s defenders holed up at the last remaining pocket of resistance – the mammoth Azovstal plant that employed 10,000 workers before the war.

WHY HAS THE BATTLE FOR THE STEEL MILL TAKEN SO LONG?

A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by Moscow’s estimate, remained in the plant, which covers an area of nearly 11 square kilometres. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said about 1,000 civilians were also trapped in the plant.

Azovstal has a 24-kilometre labyrinth of underground tunnels and passages, which allowed its defenders to maneuver freely to repel the Russian attacks.

A view of the sea fishing port near Azovstal factory during ongoing conflicts in the city of Mariupol under the control of the Russian military and pro-Russian separatists, on April 9. Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Before the war, Ukrainian authorities prepared for the Russian offensive by building up stockpiles of food and water at Azovstal.

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“The plant covers a huge area, and the Ukrainians can move through underground tunnels to quickly change location,” said Ukrainian military expert Oleh Zhdanov.

“Azovstal is very hard to storm, and the Russians risk losing many troops, resources and, most importantly, time there,” Zhdanov said. “It’s a city within a city, and fighting there could take months.”

Read more: Russia does not have full control of Mariupol yet, Joe Biden says

He added that “as long as Mariupol holds, the Russians can’t redeploy 10-12 of their elite units to other areas in eastern Ukraine.”

The city “keeps distracting the Russian army forces and thwarting the Kremlin plans for an offensive in the Donbas.”

HOW IS PUTIN PORTRAYING THE BATTLE FOR MARIUPOL?

Putin met Thursday with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who said the entire city except Azovstal is now under Russian control. It would take three to four days to flush the Ukrainian troops out of the steel mill, he added.

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In a tightly choreographed televised meeting, Putin congratulated the military, saying that “putting such an important centre in the south as Mariupol under control is a success.”

Read more: Ukraine scoffs at Putin’s Mariupol victory claim: ‘The city was, is and remains Ukrainian’

At the same time, he ordered Shoigu not to send troops into Azovstal to finish off the resistance, so as to avoid losses. Instead, the plant would be sealed tightly “so that not even a fly comes through.”

The remarks appeared to reflect Putin’s attempt to claim victory without a bloody, all-out assault of the plant in hopes that its defenders will surrender after running out of food and ammunition.

Putin said nothing about halting a bombardment of the plant, which will probably continue.

HOW IS UKRAINE RESPONDING?

Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, mocked Putin’s claim of victory, saying it reflects the fact the Russian military “cannot physically capture Azovstal.”

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Retired British Rear Adm. Chris Parry described Putin’s remarks as a sign of a shift in approach, observing that “the Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where the Ukrainians can hold out in the urban centres, but to try and capture territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory.”

Azovstal steel plant can be viewed from central Mariupol on April 9. Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Parry likened the Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol to the battle of Stalingrad, in which the Red Army routed the Nazis blockading the city in a key turning point in the Second World War.

“I think there’s a great totemic value in the Ukrainians holding on to Mariupol,” Parry said. “If the Ukrainians can hang on to it … elevated to the level of Stalingrad, then I think it’s going to be a major lever for them both in the propaganda war, but also on the ground campaign as well.”

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Commanders of Ukrainian units at the plant made a series of desperate video appeals in recent days, saying they are clinging by a thread and begging for help.

Maj. Serhiy Volynskyy of the 36th Marine Brigade said in a video Wednesday that “we are probably facing our last days, if not hours,” adding that “the enemy outnumbers us 10-1.”

Read more: Mariupol may only have a ‘few days or hours left,’ Ukraine commander says

“We appeal and plead to all world leaders to help us,” he said, asking world leaders to help safely evacuate the plant’s defenders and civilians holed up there.

Zelenskyy said about 1,000 civilians could be taking shelter in the plant and that “we are open to different formats of exchange of our people for Russian people, Russian military that they have left behind.”

But he added that Russia has stonewalled Ukraine’s attempts for a negotiated exit.

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