How Mariupol’s Asovstal steel plant became an obstacle to the city’s resistance

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Long before Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steel Works became a key battlefield in Ukraine, it played a dominant role in the port city’s economy. As one of the largest metallurgical works in Europe, it pumped over 4 million tonnes of crude steel per year and provided livelihoods for tens of thousands of people.

But now, amid a devastating war and a week-long siege by Russian forces, the sprawling industrial park no longer produces steel. Instead, the plant and its network of underground tunnels serve as shelter and last refuge for thousands of Ukrainian fighters, including many from the Azov Battalion, one of Ukraine’s most skilled and controversial military units.

As many as 1,000 civilians are also hiding in the underground network, the Mariupol City Council said in a Telegram message on Monday.

Azovstal was originally built in the early Soviet era and was later rebuilt after the Nazi occupation of Mariupol between 1941 and 1943 left it in ruins. It now occupies four square miles along the city’s waterfront.

“Beneath the city there is basically another city,” Yan Gagin, an adviser to the pro-Moscow Donetsk People’s Republic separatist group, told Russian news channel Ria Novosti over the weekend.

Gagin complained that the site was designed to withstand shelling and blockades – and that it has a built-in communications system that heavily favors the defenders, even if they are vastly outnumbered.

Sergiy Zgurets, a Ukrainian military analyst, told Reuters that the Russians are using “heavy bombs” in the Azovstal region, given its large size and number of workshops.

Mariana Budjeryn, an expert at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said the situation in Mariupol looked increasingly “desperate”, based on reports circulating.

“This town was besieged slowly and the area controlled by Ukrainian forces was almost smothered,” said Budjeryn, from Ukraine. “There is probably a tactical and security advantage for the defense forces to make their last stand in this large industrial facility. It is like a mini fortress.

Much remains unknown, she said, including what kind of armaments or access to air defense Ukrainian forces have.

But if Russia were to take the steel mills, it would be a much-needed victory for the Kremlin.

After failing to overrun kyiv in the early days of the war, Russian forces regrouped in eastern Ukraine with an apparent plan to seize large parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, known as the name of Donbass.

Mariupol, with a pre-war population of around 450,000, is one of the last urban areas in Donetsk not to be fully under Russian control. Its capture would give Russian forces a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Azovstal and similar sites in the city are also great examples of why the Donbass and its industrial heritage are so important to Ukraine and Russia. Mariupol is Ukraine’s second largest port city and, at least before comprehensive Western sanctions, Russia had a booming steel sector that was rated as the fifth largest in the world.

Donbass is best known for its coal, but Mariupol also had a profitable metallurgical industry. About 40,000 residents were employed at Azovstal and another nearby steelworks owned by the same company, Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, according to steel giant Metinvest.

Together, Azovstal and Ilyich accounted for about a third of Ukraine’s crude steel output in 2019, according to analyst group GMK Center tracking. That year, steel and related industries contributed 12% to Ukraine’s gross domestic product.

Russian forces stormed the small factory in Ilyich last week. But Metinvest said in a statement to Reuters last week that it would “never operate under Russian occupation”.

Taras Shevchenko, general manager of Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, said in an interview with the Ukraine 24 news channel on Monday that the Russian action in Mariupol was a “deliberate and systematic destruction of industry”.

He said the company was assessing the extent of the damage and was committed to restoring the metallurgical plants. His remarks were published on the Metinvest website.

Azovstal has experienced conflict before. Production at the site began in 1933, but less than a decade later Mariupol was overrun by German troops during World War II, and work was halted amid a dramatic exodus of civilians from the city.

But in 1944, just a year after the end of the occupation, work was already underway to rebuild the plant, which quickly became a productive and profitable part of the Soviet steel industry.

Seventy years later, metalworkers in Azovstal organized to forcibly retake Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists in 2014. The resistance – in a city where the majority spoke Russian and had often voted for politicians friendly to Moscow – surprised many observers.

Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and owner of Metinvest, served as a deputy for the pro-Moscow Regions Party and has been accused of clandestine dealings with the underworld, including a supporting role in federal investigations into President Donald Trump’s ties to Moscow. .

Akhmetov turned against the separatists in 2014. This year he refused to support the Russian invasion and, despite a public feud with President Volodymyr Zelensky, he helped fund the government by paying an advance of 34 million dollars on taxes.

Ukraine’s steel and iron industry declined after 2014, with crude steel production from Azovstal dropping by more than a million tonnes between 2013 and 2015, according to the GMK Center. But with new investments in Mariupol, there had been a positive trend for the industry in recent years. Metinvest planned a $1 billion investment in its steel and steelmaking sites in the region.

In mid-March, Azovstal’s chief executive said fighting nearby meant the site had been closed for the first time since Nazi occupation. Enver Tskitishvili, speaking in a video address from Kyiv, said the closure would only be temporary.

“We are going to go back to the city, rebuild the business and relaunch it. It will work and bring glory to Ukraine the same way it always has,” Tskitishvili said. “Because Mariupol is Ukraine. Azovstal is Ukraine.

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