On Zoom, a steel mill in Mariupol says it will never surrender
If Russian President Vladimir Putin was hoping to mark VE Day on Monday by celebrating the capture or surrender of the last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol, a Zoom appearance from their commanders suggests he will have to wait.
Speaking in a lengthy online press conference on Sunday, an intelligence officer from the Azov regiment holed up in the massive Azovstal steel plant in the southeastern port city said the surrender would be tantamount to suicide. He said they had enough food and weapons to last a while longer.
Describing their increasingly bleak and probably ultimately hopeless situation, Illia Samoilenko also made clear her bitterness towards the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. It had, he said, failed in its defense of southern Ukraine, where Russia was advancing much faster than in the north, and had abandoned the Mariupol garrison to its fate.
“Surrender is not an option because Russia is not interested in our lives,” Samoilenko said, arguing that Moscow could not allow them to live because of the war crimes they had witnessed. “We are basically dead men here. Most of us know that and that’s why we fight so fearlessly.”
Speaking after the Zoom briefing, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said that “every presidential conversation with foreign leaders and international organizations begins and ends with Azovstal”.
Mariupol’s defense has been hotly contested, in part because the city is critical to Russia’s ability to rebuild the eastern Donbass region it is now fighting to secure, and to establish a land corridor between the Russian mainland and Crimea, annexed to Ukraine in 2014. .
The town was largely leveled by shelling during the siege, with civilians struggling for access to food, electricity and water, and the last holdouts of the Ukrainian defense now lie at the steelworks. All the women and children who had been crammed into bunkers at the site for weeks were evacuated.
On Sunday, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional Development Marat Khusnullin said on his Telegram channel that he had just visited Mariupol and other recently “liberated” areas of eastern Ukraine. “The restoration of peaceful life starts in the regions. There is a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Moscow is preparing for its annual military parade on Monday to mark its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, with a parade of sorts also planned in Mariupol.
Samoilenko said the aerial and artillery bombardment of Azovstal continued on Sunday and has intensified since the evacuation of civilians. He also said Russian forces were sending small groups of around 100 troops on the ground to try to seize the plant.
“We are ready,” Samoilenko said, when asked if the fighting had started in the tunnels. At the same time, he offered a military rescue that he said would take months to execute against well-established Russian defenses. He called on nations to stop being afraid of Russia and find a way to ensure the regiment’s safe evacuation to Ukrainian-held territory.
It also added to a stark, emergent picture of life in Azovstal’s maze of underground tunnels and shelters.
Samoilenko described extracting civilians from some bunkers that collapsed under Russian shelling, as well as injured soldiers succumbing to pneumonia and other illnesses caused by dust and dirt in the makeshift underground field hospital From the factory.
The Azov Regiment, a volunteer militia merged with the Ukrainian National Guard which still wears the medieval Wolfsangel insignia ~CHECK~ made infamous by Nazi German SS units ~CHECK~ has been a propaganda boon for Putin’s claims that he is “denazifying” Ukraine. These will likely be repeated at the Moscow parade on Monday.
As is clear from a fast-scrolling chat accompanying a YouTube stream of the Azov Zoom call that at one point had at least 35,000 watchers, many Ukrainians now regard the regiment’s heroes for their fierce defense of Mariupol.
The life of every defender is sacred to the Ukrainian state. the @APUkraine and I personally are in constant communication with the defenders of Azovstal: the guys from “Azov”, the police, the border service, the Marines. In recent months they have become a living symbol of Ukraine. 1/3
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) May 8, 2022
Steelworker Serhiy Kuzmenko, who was among one of the last groups of civilians to be evacuated from the plant, agrees.
“Without their help and food, we couldn’t have survived,” Kuzmenko said on Saturday. At first, Azov troops occasionally brought food and diapers for children, some of whom were barely a year old. Kuzmenko’s daughter is eight years old. But after their own food ran out at the end of March, military deliveries became systematic.
“Every three or four days they would bring us food, porridge, pasta,” Kuzmenko said via Zoom. “We didn’t have a generator, so they brought us charged batteries.”
Cooking the only meal a day split among the 70 people sharing the Kuzmenko bunker was done in buckets, he said. On some days, the explosions above scattered pieces of wall plaster, dust and glass into the food.
Error! Filename not specified. Rally in support of Mariupol defenders in Kyiv on April 30. Photographer: Alexey Furman/Getty Images
Even without the shelling, the underground environment was unhealthy and Kuzmenko, 31, now fears for his daughter’s lungs. The dampness and poor ventilation in the crowded bunkers created mold. He remembers hanging up a jacket only to find it covered in spores two days later.
Kuzmenko, who worked at Azovstal for a decade, where he oversaw the equipping of a facility converting cast iron into steel, described the plant as a network of tunnels and 36 underground shelters. When he finally left with his wife and child, it took two days before they reached Ukrainian-controlled territory in Zaporizhzhia, as they were first interrogated in filtration camps.
“We were interrogated, asked what we saw, who we talked to, who we knew, where the Ukrainian soldiers were,” Kuzmenko said. “Each person was interrogated for an hour and a half by different Russians.”
Her group included two sisters, including a 22-year-old police officer. When Russian interrogators discovered her, she was never seen again. “We have no idea what happened to him,” Kuzmenko said.
For the soldiers remaining in Azovstal, the options seem to be narrowing. Asked what kind of rescue mission he would like to see, Samoilenko said a few Ukrainian brigades should immediately open an advance from Zaporizhzhia, more than 200 km (124 miles) from Mariupol. It was even then that he recognized that it would take months to break through well-prepared Russian defenses.
That’s why, Samoilenko said, the regiment is betting on a political agreement to extract them. He called on outside countries to step in and find a way.
“It’s not that hard to stop being afraid of Russia,” Samoilenko said. “It’s really just stand up and fight, stand up and fight.”