LVIV: Unbroken by a Russian blockade and relentless bombardment, the key port of Mariupol is still holding out, a symbol of staunch Ukrainian resistance.
More than six weeks after the Russian attack began, Ukrainian troops are continuing to fight the Russian forces in ferocious battles amid the ruins of what once was a bustling city on the Sea of Azov coast.
The Ukrainians’ fight against all odds has tied up significant Russian forces and delayed the start of a planned Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, Donbas. The Kremlin hopes that an attack in the east could reverse the battlefield fortunes for Russia after a failure of its attempt to quickly storm the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
Mariupol has been a key objective for Russia since the start of its attack on Feb. 24. Capturing the city would allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 and deprive Ukraine of a major port and prized industrial assets.
The giant Azovstal steel mill and other industrial plants have been heavily damaged by the ferocious Russian bombardment that has flattened much of Mariupol, hitting homes, hospitals and other public buildings and killing thousands.
The victims include about 300 people killed in last month’s Russian airstrike on the Mariupol Drama Theatre that was being used as a shelter.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said that several Ukrainian units are still fighting the Russians in Mariupol, including the 36th Marine Brigade, the Azov Regiment, some Interior Ministry troops and border guards.
The Azov Regiment, a seasoned volunteer force that is widely considered one of the country’s most capable units, is defending the mammoth Azovstal steel plant that covers an area of nearly 11 square kilometers. It has taken advantage of the plant’s sprawling network of concrete buildings and underground facilities to repel continuous Russian attacks.
The 36th Marine Brigade was maintaining defensive positions at the Azovmash and Zavod Ilyicha factories until it ran out of supplies and ammunition and made a desperate attempt to break through the Russian blockade earlier this week.
In a post on the brigade’s Facebook page, one of its officers described the unit’s heroic resistance, saying that “for more than a month, the marines have been fighting without replenishing amunition, food and water supplies.” “The wounded accounted for nearly a half of the brigade’s strength, but those who still had their limbs and were capable of walking reported back to duty,” the post said.
Boychenko said that some of the marines managed to join the Azov regiment, while others were captured by the Russians. He didn’t give any numbers.
The Russian military said Thursday that a total of 1,160 Ukrainian marines surrendered this week, a claim that couldn’t be independently verified.
As the Ukrainian troops continue to offer fierce resistance in Mariupol, fears have grown that the exasperated Russians could resort to chemical weapons to deal with the remaining pockets of resistance at the Azovstal plant and other areas of the city.
Boychenko said that an estimated 120,000 of Mariupol’s pre-war population of about 450,000 remain in the city.
Ukrainian authorities have said that the Russians have blocked humanitarian convoys from reaching Mariupol, keeping it without food, water and power since the siege started.
Mariupol has seen communications cut since the start of the siege.
The continuing fighting in Mariupol has forced the Russian military to keep a significant number of troops in the city, delaying the start of the planned new offensive in eastern Ukraine.