April 24, 2024

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Last Stand At Azovstal: Inside the Siege That Reshaped The Ukraine War

Michael Schwirtz

The two Mi-8 helicopters tore across enemy territory early on the morning of March 21, startling the Russian soldiers below. Inside were Ukrainian special forces fighters carrying crates of Stinger and Javelin missiles, as well as a satellite internet system. They were flying barely 20 feet above ground into the hottest combat zone in the war.

Ukraine’s top generals had conceived the flights as a daring, possibly doomed, mission. A band of Ukrainian soldiers, running low on ammunition and largely without any communications, was holed up in a sprawling steel factory in the besieged city of Mariupol. The soldiers were surrounded by a massive Russian force and on the verge of annihilation.

The plan called for the Mi-8s to land at the factory, swap their cargo for wounded soldiers and fly back to central Ukraine. Almost everyone understood that the city and its defenders were lost. But the weapons would allow the soldiers to frustrate the Russian forces for a few weeks more, blunting the onslaught faced by Ukrainian troops elsewhere on the southern and eastern fronts and giving them time to prepare for a new Russian offensive there.

“It was so important to the guys, who were fully encircled, to know that we had not abandoned them, that we would fly to them, risking our lives to take their wounded and bring them ammunition and medicine,” said a military intelligence officer with the call sign Flint, who described the operation to The New York Times, along with three others involved. “This was our main goal.”

As the two Mi-8s drew closer, they banked hard over the Sea of Azov, flying just above the water’s surface to avoid Russian radar. Then it appeared, the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, the last bastion of the Ukrainian defenders. In a video from the flight, Azovstal looms like a besieged industrial fortress.

Beyond it was Mariupol, a city reduced in less than four weeks to a smoldering shell.

The Prize

For the Kremlin, Mariupol was a prize.

Barely had President Vladimir Putin of Russia given the order to invade Ukraine, on Feb. 24, when Russian soldiers began pouring over the border in tanks and armored vehicles, rolling toward the city, a strategic port on the Sea of Azov. Missiles streaked through the predawn darkness, slamming into apartment buildings and wounding the first civilians of the war.

That morning, the general director of Azovstal, an industrial behemoth with more than 11,000 workers, convened his board. The director, Enver Tskitishvili, went on a war footing, deciding to power down the blast furnaces and cease operations for the first time since World War II.

Beneath the steel plant were 36 bomb shelters, a legacy of the Cold War. The shelters had enough food to feed thousands of people for several weeks. Believing the fighting would not last long, the executives saw the plant as a sanctuary and invited employees to come there with their families.

What Tskitishvili did not know was that Ukraine’s military was also arriving at Azovstal. To the Ukrainian soldiers, the plant was a stronghold, surrounded on three sides by water, ringed by high walls, as seemingly impregnable as a medieval keep. It was the perfect place to make a last stand.

For the next 80 days, Azovstal would be a fulcrum of the war as Russian brutality collided with Ukrainian resistance. Roughly 3,000 Ukrainian fighters kept a vastly larger Russian force bogged down in a quagmire that brought misery and death on both sides.

Mariupol stood in the way of one of Putin’s key aims: the creation of a land bridge linking Russian territory to Crimea, the strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine that Russia annexed in 2014. But the fight also fit the Kremlin’s war narrative. Although several military groups were at Azovstal, many of its defenders were members of the Azov Regiment, a strongly nationalistic group of fighters whose fame in Ukraine and early connections to far-right figures have been used by the Kremlin to falsely depict the entire country as fascist.

Destroying them was central to the Kremlin’s often-repeated goal of “denazifying” Ukraine.

Dozens of interviews conducted by the Times with defenders and civilians who were at Azovstal — including soldiers who were captured and later released by Russia, along with top military officials and international arbiters involved in negotiating evacuations — paint a picture of an apocalyptic siege that became Ukraine’s version of the Alamo.

In a war largely fought by anonymous soldiers far from the cameras, commanders and regular fighters at Azovstal spoke to journalists and beamed video testimonials to the world. Capt. Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment at the plant, spent his days and nights fighting above ground, then broadcast his impressions in video messages when he retreated to the bunkers.

Ultimately, Azovstal became a trap. The presence of civilians hampered the soldiers’ ability to defend themselves. The presence of soldiers meant the civilians had to endure a vicious siege as food and clean water ran out.

A City Within a City

Azovstal sat along one of the world’s bloodiest geostrategic fault lines. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Russian troops, together with local separatists, seized surrounding territory in the eastern Donbas region. The separatists occupied Mariupol for weeks before pro-Ukrainian forces, including Azov fighters, pushed them out.

For several years, as the war in the Donbas simmered, Azovstal executives ordered employees to revamp the bomb shelters and stock them with food and water. Mariupol was only a few miles from the “contact line” that demarcated the territory controlled by the separatists.

Then on Feb. 24, Russian forces invaded the entire country. Russia’s military hit so hard and so fast that Ukrainian defenses along Mariupol’s perimeter melted within days.

By early March, several thousand Ukrainian troops had converged inside Azovstal, and soldiers and civilians realized they were sharing the same refuge. Communications to the outside world were cut as Russian forces steadily took all but a few pockets of the city.

Azovstal was becoming a horror show. Civilians and soldiers were short of food, weapons and medicine. Soldiers were dying from even minor wounds.

There was no way out. The question was whether there was a way in.

Operation Air Corridor

The two Mi-8 helicopters navigated through the loading cranes of Mariupol’s port and descended into the Azovstal complex. Flint, the intelligence officer, jumped out with the special forces team and quickly began offloading green crates of weapons and ammunition.

Soldiers wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, some missing arms and legs, were hoisted into the helicopters, whose rotors never stopped spinning. They lifted off with eight or nine wounded fighters that day, Flint said.

The March 21 mission lasted only 20 minutes on the ground. “There was just this feeling of happiness, emotional satisfaction that we were able to get these guys out,” Flint said.

In all, Operation Air Corridor, as the effort was known to participants, managed to land helicopters at Azovstal seven times and rescue 85 gravely wounded soldiers, Flint said.

The helicopters also brought in other soldiers, mostly volunteers, including Pvt. Nikita Zherdev of the Azov Regiment. A native of Mariupol, Zherdev already knew the troops at Azovstal, but the men he found were withered specters of those soldiers, hungry and exhausted after weeks of constant fighting.

Losses were heavy. A helicopter went out April 7 and was hit by Russian ordnance only a few miles from Ukrainian territory, said Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, commander of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. A rescue helicopter sent to look for survivors was also shot down, and the four special forces troops on board were killed along with its crew, he said.

After that, Operation Air Corridor ended, Budanov said. But it helped the forces at Azovstal withstand the Russian onslaught for more than a month longer.

What also changed the battle was the Starlink internet system that Flint’s team had delivered on that first mission. Before, the civilians and fighters inside Azovstal had been almost completely cut off from the outside world.

Now a siege seemingly out of World War II would become an online event. Videos from inside the factory began appearing on Telegram channels.

The world could now peer inside Azovstal. What it saw was apocalyptic.

Desperation

Inside the field hospital at Azovstal, the wounded soldiers looked pale and deathlike.

Palamar sent a reporter video and photos from the field hospital in late April, hoping to stir the world’s sympathies with the suffering of his troops. A blackish mold now coated the food, the bedding, even the weapons. Medicines were running so low that surgeons carried out amputations without sufficient anesthesia.

Night and day, Russian ships and artillery units pounded the factory while Russian jets fired rockets and bunker-busting munitions that began to degrade the bomb shelters.

Days after Palamar sent his video, the hospital was hit directly, causing the ceiling to collapse and burying an unknown number of wounded fighters and their caregivers. Even as troops tried to pull their comrades from the rubble, the fighting continued.

By now, the last Ukrainian units fighting outside the factory had retreated behind its walls. And the civilians were starving.

By late April, Natalya Babeush, who worked at the plant before seeking refuge in one of the shelters, and other adults in her bunker were rationed to a single meal a day, mostly a gruel of canned meat mixed with water. The 14 children got two meals a day, if they were lucky, starting with a breakfast of oatmeal that she fried like a pancake. She recalled waking up one morning to find that a child had placed a drawing of a pizza on her bed.

“They were starving and not getting vitamins,” she said. “One woman was so weak that she was always stumbling, losing her balance, nearly fainting.”

Despair set in. People in the bunkers went weeks without seeing natural light or breathing clean air. People became irritable and cruel, occasionally fighting, said Anna Krylova, who sheltered with her daughter, who was then 14. Some became so desperate for an escape they began to drink from the bottles of alcohol-infused hand sanitizer installed during the COVID pandemic.

Evacuation

By late April, Russian forces still had not broken through the perimeter. As many as 12,000 Russian troops had been bogged down in the fight.

From the bunkers, Azov soldiers began sharing videos of children in diapers fashioned from plastic bags or wearing oversized Azovstal work uniforms. The children and their mothers pleaded to return home, to see the sun again.

Outside Mariupol, a group of women, mostly wives of the trapped soldiers, launched a campaign to save their husbands, appealing to world leaders and even earning an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

“You are our last hope,” Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of the Azov Regiment’s commander, told the pope. “I hope you can save their lives. Please don’t let them die.”

On April 26, the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, flew to Moscow with a proposal to open a humanitarian corridor for the civilians inside Azovstal. Putin, according to a U.N. readout of the meeting, agreed to the proposal “in principle.”

Four days later, Krylova and her daughter clawed their way out of the subterranean bunker. They were put on a bus and driven out of the factory complex, where they were met by representatives from the United Nations and the Red Cross.

“Above, the sky was so blue, so blue. Beautiful. There was quiet,” Krylova said. “And the ruined factory, like the apocalypse.”

The evacuations were harrowing. Bombing in the preceding days was so intense that civilians initially resisted coming out of Azovstal, she said. Yet over the next several days, every civilian was extracted.

Each was escorted by the United Nations and Red Cross to a checkpoint in a coastal Ukrainian town that was under Russian control. They were strip searched and interrogated about their knowledge of Ukrainian forces at the plant as Russian authorities pulled off the buses a handful of people deemed suspicious.

Surrender

For the soldiers at Azovstal, there was no reprieve. Even before the last civilians had left, the shelling resumed and continued intensely for about two weeks as Russian forces made their final push, but the Ukrainians kept repelling them.

On May 16, Ruslan — one of the Azov fighters, who gave only his first name to reduce risk to his brother, a soldier fighting the Russians in the east — lost his leg.

“I can see flying toward me this sparking, whistling thing on a wire, and suddenly, it just cuts through my leg like a sausage,” he said. “I’m screaming, ‘I’m bleeding out! I’m bleeding out! Give me a tourniquet. Shoot me. Shoot me.’

“And some guy runs up to me and says, ‘Not today.’”

Ruslan was rushed to the field hospital in the bunker, where doctors performed a quick surgery and pumped him full of morphine. When he came to several hours later, he received a shock: He was on a stretcher surrounded by Russian soldiers.

While Ruslan was unconscious, Ukraine’s commanders in Kyiv had made a difficult choice. To spare the lives of the remaining fighters, they ordered the defenders of Azovstal to surrender themselves as prisoners of war.

Ruslan was among the first to be evacuated. He said he would never have surrendered if given the choice.

“We would have fought to the end,” he said.

Some 2,500 fighters were taken to a prison camp on Russian-controlled territory in the Donetsk region. They were interrogated, locked into cramped cells and fed just enough to keep from dying of hunger.

They were awakened at 6 each morning to music blaring from a loudspeaker: the Russian national anthem.

On June 29, Ruslan, the stump of his leg now bandaged, was on a bus with other prisoners, many of them badly wounded. They drove for hours.

After intense negotiations, the Ukrainians and Russians had agreed on a prisoner swap that saw 144 Ukrainians exchanged that day, most of them fighters from Azovstal.

The other surviving soldiers from Azovstal are being held at a prison camp in a Russia-controlled part of eastern Ukraine. The commanders, including Palamar, were transferred to Russia and are being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, a place of torture during Stalin’s purges.

Ukraine’s leaders have vowed to bring them back alive, but Russian officials are threatening to charge some of them with war crimes. Of the dead, so far the bodies of more than 400 soldiers have been returned to Ukrainian-held territory for burial. An unknown number remain entombed in the ruins of Azovstal.