Occupying a sprawling network of Cold War-era bunkers, connected by mile after mile of dimly lit passageways, the remnants of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade prepare to mount a desperate last stand.
Pale, unshaven, exhausted after seven weeks of non-stop combat that has reduced the surrounding city of Mariupol to smoking ruins, they find themselves in a perilous position: outgunned, outnumbered and completely surrounded.
Maybe a third of their brothers-in-arms have already been killed or wounded, with roughly the same number taken captive by the Russians whose advance they so far have managed, against extraordinary odds, to frustrate. Food, water and ammunition are running scarce. The chances seem insurmountable. The situation hopeless. Yet they refuse to surrender.
‘We are the protectors of Ukraine in Mariupol, the 36th Marine Brigade, who will protect this city to the end,’ was how one of the 1,500 or so surviving fighters put it, in a video message this week.
Occupying a sprawling network of Cold War-era bunkers, connected by mile after mile of dimly lit passageways, the remnants of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade prepare to mount a desperate last stand
‘We did not give up our positions. We held every piece of this city for as long as we could, but the reality is that the city ended up blockaded, and so we could not receive any arms back-ups, or any food supplies. We thank every Ukrainian who believed in, and continues to believe in, the marines.
‘We’ve survived on this hope for a very long time and continue to survive. Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes!’
A second fighter, who produced a separate film showing roughly a dozen defiant-looking comrades holed up in a small windowless room deep below the Azovstal iron and steel works, declared: ‘Ukrainians must remember the cost of this struggle and believe that we will do the task until the end. Ukraine, Europe, world — we’re loyal to the end!’
The footage, shared via the messaging app Telegram on Wednesday, lays bare the remarkable fortitude that has allowed Ukrainian forces to cling on to parts of central Mariupol since the early stages of this war, despite the ferocious efforts of around 15,000 Russian troops whose political masters have for weeks assumed that the city’s fall is imminent.
The soldiers, one of them female, appear in one of the short films to be in various stages of physical exhaustion. One, with his feet swathed in bandages, reclines on an armchair next to a set of crutches. Another toys with a walkie-talkie. A third fiddles with his telephone. Those not asleep drum their feet, restlessly. A young man waves blearily at the camera.
As their haunted stares attest, it has been a terrible struggle that will almost certainly end with yet more pain. In a post on its official Facebook page, the brigade this week offered an insight into the scale of the suffering they have endured as the Russian stranglehold on Mariupol choked the ability of Ukraine’s air force to fly in food, ammunition and replacement weapons for their troops.
‘The enemy gradually pushed us back. They surrounded us with fire and are now trying to destroy us. For more than a month, the marines have fought without refilling ammunition, without food, without water, aside from the dregs of puddles, and have died in packs,’ it read.
‘The mountain of wounded now makes up almost half of the crew. Those whose limbs are not torn off can return to battle. Our infantry have all died and gunfighters are now led by cooks, contacts of our drivers and police officers. Even members of our orchestra. We are dying but fighting. But gradually we are coming to an end.’
The heroics reflect the critical nature of the unbelievable struggle for Mariupol, an industrial city on the Gulf of Azov which, prior to Putin’s invasion, was home to 450,000 people.
An essential strategic city, which would allow Russia to establish a ‘land bridge’ to the Crimea, the region Putin annexed in 2014, it came under heavy bombardment from the opening days of the war, which began on February 24, and has remained at the centre of hostilities ever since.
Drone footage shows that barely a building has survived undamaged and swathes of the blackened metropolis, which stands eight miles across and boasts a deep-sea port through which around a quarter of Ukraine’s exports normally flow, have been reduced to rubble and smoking ruins. Corpses and twisted wrecks of vehicles and tanks litter the streets.
According to the city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, 21,000 civilians have already been killed during the bombardment. Earlier this month, he said Russian forces had brought mobile cremation equipment to the city to dispose of the corpses and were taking bodies to a shopping centre where there are storage facilities and refrigerators.
Yesterday, Mariupol City Council repeated claims from residents that Russian troops were digging up bodies previously buried in residential courtyards and not allowing any new burials of those killed by the invading army.
‘A watchman has been assigned to each courtyard and is not allowing Mariupol residents to lay to rest dead relatives or friends,’ according to an unverified statement on the Telegram app. ‘Why the exhumation is being carried out… is unknown.’ Some have suggested the reason is to dispose of the evidence of war crimes.
The city has seen constant attacks on hospitals, schools, and, in mid-March, a theatre in which hundreds of women and children were sheltering. More than 300 died that night, in what the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has said was ‘most likely… an egregious violation’ of humanitarian law. Around 100,000 more residents have yet to be evacuated.
Escaping Mariupol has been difficult and dangerous for refugees since the first week of the conflict, when Russian troops were able to largely surround the city to the north, east and west, while naval vessels were stationed to the south, allowing artillery fire to rain down from every direction.
Those who have escaped describe the carnage of the battlefield they left behind.
‘It’s like a horror movie. There’s nothing,’ said Oksana, who left with her three sons, sister, brother-in-law and two nieces. ‘Everything is bombed.’
Many tried several times to leave the basements where they were sheltering, but the fighting was too fierce. ‘It was so scary to come out; everything was exploding. We got back into the basement and tried again later,’ said Maryna.
Fortunately for the soldiers left behind to defend it, Ukrainian helicopters were initially able to fly in supplies, including large quantities of ammunition.
The troops defending its outskirts were among the best and most battle-hardened in Ukraine, many of them veterans of an eight-year conflict against separatist rebels loyal to Russia in the nearby regions of Luhansk.
They included not just the 36th Marine Brigade but also the Azov Battalion, an elite unit originally formed by a motley selection of football hooligans and far-Right activists in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Although it has since been subsumed into Ukraine’s national guard, and somewhat de-toxified, Azov’s unlovely history is central to the Kremlin’s rationale for pursuing the invasion, which posits that it’s a ‘special military operation’ designed to ‘liberate’ the country from neo-Nazis backed by Western powers.
Aiding this narrative — which has added to the strategic importance of securing Mariupol — several foreign volunteers also serve in Azov’s ranks, including a former care worker from Newark named Aiden Aslin, who fought in Syria and posts to social media under the alias Cossack Gundi. He was captured this week by Russians, who promptly released footage of him in handcuffs, having apparently been heavily beaten.
Yet Azov has proved hugely effective in combat against the conscripts of Russia’s regular army. In mid-March, it was credited with killing Major-General Oleg Mityaev, 47, commander of Russia’s feared 150th Motorised Rifle Division, in an ambush.
It wasn’t until March 24, a month after the start of the war, that Russian troops were finally able to penetrate the outskirts of the city. Since then, the Russians have been forced to fight for the city street by street, building by building, in an offensive that bears eerie similarities to Stalingrad, the World War II battle which saw German forces bogged down in the Soviet city for five bloody months of guerrilla warfare. Around two million died in what became one of the bloodiest encounters in warfare history.
Russia — for whom Stalingrad remains a source of immense national pride — now finds itself in the role of hostile invader, while Ukranian troops are the ruthless defenders of their homeland.
What’s more, Putin’s troops face a fiercely motivated opponent which boasts extensive local knowledge and an apparent desire to never give up.
By the start of this week, Ukrainian resistance had nonetheless been slowly but surely pushed back to three areas of the Mariupol: part of the city’s port, held by remnants of the country’s 56th Motorized Brigade and 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, the Ilyich Metallurgical Plant, where Azov’s forces were stationed, and that stronghold of the 36th Marine Brigade at the Azovstal steel and iron works, one of the largest industrial facilities in Europe, which measures three miles across and is often described as a ‘city within the city’.
Analysts believed around 4,000 troops remained, meaning the city’s defenders were outnumbered by around four to one. However the ensuing days saw around 1,000 Ukrainians surrender, having apparently run out of ammunition — helicopters bearing supplies have not been able to break through for several weeks — while the port was almost entirely over-run. The remainder of the Azov Battalion appears to have then managed to retreat to link up with the 36th Marine Brigade, holed up at the Azovstal works.
On Thursday morning, the commanders of both brigades released a video announcing that they will now jointly defend the huge facility. Effectively it will be where the battle for Mariupol is either finally lost or — against all conceivable odds — somehow won.
‘Long live Ukraine!’ said one. ‘We will continue to carry out combat tasks. Our morale is strong. We know what we’re doing and why we’re here. We will do whatever it takes to successfully complete our combat mission.’
His colleague described their remaining troops as ‘real soldiers. Heroes who stayed true to their oath. Loyal to the Ukrainian people and who continue to share the city with us. These are real men who have chosen the path of war.’
For the remaining Ukrainians, the steelworks where they are now digging in are almost tailor-made for guerrilla warfare. On the surface are mile after mile of warehouses, furnaces, power plants and chimneys, providing cover for occupying troops. And deep underground is a vast network of bunkers and tunnels, built under Soviet rule during the Cold War to safeguard the plant’s roughly 40,000 workers in the event of a nuclear attack.
The maze-like system — thought to contain around 1,500 Ukrainian troops — is highly secure and stretches to six storeys underground.
It’s believed to be almost impossible to penetrate by bombing from above and highly dangerous to clear out via man-to-man combat. ‘They can try, but they’ll be slaughtered because the defenders of the tunnel will absolutely have the tactical upper hand,’ says Alexander Grinberg, analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
‘Perhaps the only reliable way to clear the place out would be to use a chemical weapon, or chlorine gas, but that would be quite complicated to funnel into the system and obviously would risk escalating the wider conflict.
‘It’s up to the Ukrainians whether they choose to surrender or instead fight until the very last man. So far, from what we have seen, they do seem to be choosing to fight to the last man.’
Analysts point out that such a resistance could continue for some time. Outnumbered fighters have in previous conflicts used tunnel systems to great effect. Most famously, Soviets used underground passages and sewers to get behind German lines in Stalingrad.
At Azovstal, the sheer size of the tunnel system potentially now allows Ukraine’s soldiers to mount guerrilla raids across a swathe of Mariupol, according to Michael Clarke, Visiting Professor of Defence Studies at King’s College London.
‘For the occupants, the essence is not to have to fight in the tunnels but instead to use them to get around and pop up and carry out raids, to attack troops or vehicles and make a general nuisance of themselves. Russia will try to screen themselves from the plant and get on with occupying the city and maybe think they can starve them out.’
The outcome may hinge on how long supplies of food and water will allow occupants of the tunnels to survive. Either way, Clarke describes the last stand at the steel works as an ‘Alamo moment’ in which the Ukrainians are almost certain to eventually perish, but may be able to exert a seismic impact on the wider war.
‘They are going to go down fighting and the longer they can hold out the more they will stop Russians being able to redeploy north, which is what Putin really wants them to be doing,’ he says.
‘They can be a real nuisance and the more this continues, the more it becomes a Pyrrhic victory for Russia.’
Putin, meanwhile, is believed to be desperate to declare ‘victory’ in Ukraine by May 9, a national holiday when Russia celebrates the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Taking Mariupol and destroying the alleged Nazis of the Azov Battalion may allow him to do that.
But first, he must find a way to break a heroic collection of battle-hardened soldiers who, against massive odds, continue to ‘hold every piece of this city’ and seem set to remain there until the bitter end.