Ukrainian forces surrendered Monday at the Azovstal steel plant complex that was the site of the country’s last remaining defense of Mariupol, ceding control of the heavily besieged southeastern Ukrainian port city to Russia with a pre-war population of about 400,000 that became a crucial target for Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.
Ukraine’s military said early Tuesday it ended its “combat mission” in Mariupol, where Ukraine’s military operations had been reduced for weeks to a small group of fighters in the Azovstal industrial district who continued to defend the city in defiance of several Russian surrender ultimatums.
Both Russian and Ukrainian forces estimated about 250 troops, including about 50 seriously injured personnel, surrendered, and Reuters reports it saw the soldiers leave the plant overnight and head to Russian-controlled territory.
Capturing Mariupol was a key goal for Russia for a few reasons, but, most critically, a victory in Mariupol gives Russia access an unobstructed land bridge from the Crimean peninsula it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014 to the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine, potentially enabling easier troop mobilization into the Donbas that has become the focus of Russia’s invasion.
More generally, Mariupol is part of “Novorossiya” (New Russia), a term used by Russian President Vladimir Putin following the annexation of Crimea to describe areas in southern and eastern Ukraine that he believes belong to Russia.
Mariupol is the largest trading port on the Sea of Azov and the primary export center for goods in southeastern Ukraine, and the city falling would help to “effectively cut Ukraine off from access to the sea,” Georgetown University researcher Margarita Konaev told NPR, crippling its economy.
Representing Russia’s most notable win since the war began, capturing Mariupol would likely be a huge propaganda boon for Putin.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a Monday address explaining the situation in Mariupol. Zelensky said returning the Azovstal fighters to Ukraine will take “delicacy and time.”
Russia has cited the controversial white supremacist history of the right-wing Azov Batallion, a Ukrainian military unit defending Mariupol, with Putin defending the invasion as an effort to “denazify” Ukraine. But the unit claims to have shed its more extreme elements.
Mariupol has been the site of a humanitarian crisis since the beginning of the invasion, as efforts to evacuate civilians and provide supplies through safe corridors have repeatedly failed. At least 10,000 civilians have died in the city during the war, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told the Associated Press last month, though the civilian death toll has yet to be independently verified. Zelensky said during a video address to South Korea’s National Assembly last month, “The Russians completely destroyed Mariupol and burned it to ashes.” Rebuilding the city’s infrastructure largely destroyed in fighting will cost $10 billion, the Mariupol City Council estimated last month.
Azovstal is owned by Metinvest Group, Ukraine’s largest steelmaker largely held by Ukraine’s wealthiest man Rinat Akhmetov. Akhmetov, who is worth $4.6 billion according to Forbes’ latest estimates, told Forbes Ukraine last month he “will spare no expense or effort” to rebuild Ukraine.
Explainer: Mariupol: ruins of port could become Russia’s first big prize in Ukraine (Reuters)
Battle for Donbas: 3 reasons why Russia is shifting its war machine to east Ukraine (CNBC)
Ukrainian Soldiers Lay Down Arms at Mariupol’s Azovstal Steel Plant (Wall Street Journal)
What the city of Mariupol means for Ukraine — and for Russia’s military campaign (NPR)
Massive Bombardment Signals Russia’s Renewed Offensive In Eastern Ukraine (Forbes)