Translated by: Ermat

Image Source: Internet

The Russian-Ukrainian war has been going on for almost three months. So far, what attracts the most attention is not Kyiv or other cities, but an important city in southeastern Ukraine – Mariupol. The most important focus of the defense of Mariupol was the Azov Iron Works.

On 16 May, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said it had ended its combat mission in Mariupol. Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Mariar said that a hostage exchange procedure would be initiated to bring home the Ukrainian troops besieged at the Azov steelworks.

The Ukrainian military said on Tuesday (May 17) that it was evacuating remaining personnel from their last stronghold in Mariupol, as hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated to areas controlled by pro-Russian separatists. This marked the end of an 82-day siege.

“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive, this is our principle,” Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky said when announcing the withdrawal. This gruelling siege lasted 82 days, and the Azov steelworks, full of tunnels and bunkers, were relentlessly bombed.

Officials on both sides said more than 260 fighters, some seriously wounded, were pulled Monday from the Azov steel plant, the last bastion of Ukrainian fighters in the city, and sent to two towns controlled by separatists. The exact number of other fighters remains unknown at the 11-square-kilometer (4-square-mile) steel mill.

The complete occupation of the plant by Russian forces marked the end of an important regional war. After more than 80 days of siege and exchange of fire, Mariupol is in ruins. Its total fall means that Moscow has complete control of the Sea of ​​Azov coast and an entire area of ​​eastern and southern Ukraine,  the size of Greece.

Why has the Russian army besieged and attacked Mariupol for more than 80 days and have not been able to completely occupy the fortress of the Azov Steel Plant? Let’s explore it together.

The glorious history of Azov Steel

Azov Steel Plant is the oldest and largest steel plant in Europe, an enterprise with a complete metallurgical cycle, and used to be one of the top ten companies in the Soviet Union. Azov Steel produces thick plates for power, special machinery, shipbuilding, bridge construction, deep-water structures, and also produces large-diameter pipes for oil and gas pipelines. Located in an industrial area overlooking the Sea of ​​Azov, the factory covers more than 11 square kilometers and is a steel labyrinth of countless railroad tracks, blast furnaces and factory buildings.

In 1930, the Soviet Union decided to build one of the world’s largest metallurgical plants in Mariupol and construction began in November of the same year, with blast furnace No. 1 coming on stream at the beginning of 1931. In 1944, the Soviet Union began restoring the Azov steelworks, and in just one year the plant was restored and production resumed. The Azov steelworks was the mainstay of the industry throughout the Soviet period, when the standard of living in the Donbass region was high.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of Ukraine, the Azov steelworks took on a new path. During the Kuchma (1994-2005) era in Ukraine, Azov Steel began to be personalized in 1995.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azov Steelworks has been developing well, as Mariupol has not only mineral resources, but also port resources and a very good industrial support in the surrounding area, making Azov Steelworks not only a pillar of Ukraine, but also a leader in Europe in the field of metallurgy.

Prior to the 2014 conflict in the Donbas, most of Azov Steel’s products were certified by many of the world’s leading associations, including European classification societies and petroleum associations. The steelworks is the basis for around 40% of Ukraine’s heavy industry, with its construction alone estimated to be worth $7.6 billion, and it also provides employment for around 12,500 Ukrainians.

When Poroshenko came to power in 2014, all the oligarchs were too busy raking in money and transferring assets to care about corporate production, and the Azov steel plant fell completely out of the world’s top 10 in terms of capacity.

In 2019, Zelensky came to power and renovated and operated the steel plant underground again. At this point, the Azov Steel Plant became a special underground base for the Azov Battalion, which was apparently built as a fortress in preparation for war, for protection and emergency evacuation, and today serves as the home for thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in Mariupol. A safe haven, a refuge from Russian bombing.

Why Azov Steel is easy to defend and difficult to attack

The main part of the Azov Steel Plant was rebuilt after World War II (started in 1948 and completed in 1953). The main building is divided into above-ground and underground: the above-ground part is a traditional steel plant building, but the main building has been strengthened. The wall is made of a large amount of reinforced concrete, with a thickness of up to 3-4 meters, which can even resist the direct bombardment of large-caliber artillery; the underground part is more complicated, with 6 floors, and the deepest part is hundreds of meters. They are made of reinforced concrete with a thickness of several meters, which is extremely strong.

According to public information, the underground part of the Azov steelworks is very well developed. In the six underground levels, there are not only a variety of ordinary steelworks underground buildings, but also a wide range of living facilities, including hospitals, warehouses, dormitories, ammunition depots, command centers and even cinemas and dance halls. What’s more, the underground area is so vast that the various connections add up to dozens of kilometers, and the districts are simply commuted by metro, with some of the connections even extending to the Azov Sea coast.

In addition, there are a large number of power generation facilities underground which, provided there is sufficient fuel, will ensure that the entire steelworks is supplied with electricity. Under the steelworks there are special storage rooms, where food and water can be stored to keep the garrison going for a long time. In addition to the stored drinking water, there is a special water purification room where fresh water for human consumption can be made in-house. The reserves should be able to hold out for half a year without a problem. Such a sturdy facility cannot be completely destroyed by an aerial drilling bomb or even a tactical nuclear weapon attack, let alone an ordinary conventional war.

Since 2014, the city of Mariupol, although part of the Donetsk region, has been under Ukrainian control and has not been part of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Now, after eight years of militarisation and fortification, the city has become a fortress of steel. The Ukrainian side boasts that the city “can be defended for 100 years”, so it is to be expected that the Russian army will not be able to attack it for long.

Today, no one but the Ukrainian defenders can tell exactly what the underground structure of the Azov Steel Plant looks like. After the 8-year Ukrainian civil war, it served as the base camp for the Ukrainian elite, plus the base for the Ukrainian army to confront the Donetsk region. The Azov Steel Plant has been transformed round after round by the Ukrainian side, and has long surpassed the original factory function.

According to an EU official who visited the underground part of the Azov steel plant, the underground structure of the Azov steel plant is now at least 25 meters deep, equivalent to 9-10 floors. The deepest point is hundreds of meters. It is the core part of the Azov Steel Plant and the command center of the entire defense system. 

At each entrance and exit of the rest of the underground passages, there are five doors to separate them, which are used for fire prevention, explosion protection, chemical weapons protection, biological weapons protection and nuclear radiation protection. In addition to linking various areas, the tunnels also have bunkers and dark forts leading to the ground. For a steel factory with a large area, there are many corners where you can hide.

Once a Russian army enters here rashly, they will be attacked by snipers or rocket launchers from unknown directions. And the ambulance can “shoot a shot and change a place”, making it difficult for the attacked party to fight back. Facing such a strong fortress, it is not easy for the Russian army to win.

In addition to the complex structure, there are thousands of Ukrainian military personnel in the steel plant, and the “Azov Battalion” hoards a large amount of equipment in the underground fortress, so that they have a complete arsenal of weapons, ammunition and armored convoys. As a result, “the actions of the Russian army seem to be progressing slowly”.