Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Mariupol has been one of the cities hardest hit by bombing of the Russian troops. The Azovstal steelworks in this port city in southern Ukraine has become a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. From there the soldiers of kyiv have fought until the last moment so that Mariupol did not fall into the hands of Russia. After the surrender of the defenders of this steel plant, Moscow has succeeded one of his greatest victories in more than 80 days of war.
“The fall of Mariupol has a symbolism for Putin, because it is the only medal that can be hung so far in the military campaign”, assures the professor of Contemporary History at the National University of Distance Education (UNED), Isidro Sepúlveda.
For Moscow, this plant has been key to Moscow’s plans to take control of Mariupol, a city vital to the Russian goal of achieving a land corridor from the eastern territories to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
“Russia’s control of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea is getting closer and as long as Russia controls this area, short-circuits the possibility of access to the sea to Ukraine”, explains the professor of International Law and International Relations at Comillas Pontifical University, José Ángel López. “Right now Ukraine does not have completely pruned access to the sea, but if the operations are extended to Odessa it would be very negative for Ukraine”, he asserts.
Another issue after the fall of Azovstal is what will happen to the Ukrainian fighters who were at the steel plant. According to the Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Maliar, they will be exchanged for Russian soldiers, although from the Duma, some deputy has stated that these soldiers “deserve the death penalty”.
The symbolism of the fall of Azovstal
After months of fighting in which Russian troops have fought for control of Mariupol under stiff Ukrainian resistance, Russia has managed to take over the Azovstal steelworks. This is a significant victory for Moscow, while Ukraine has lost an integral port city on the Sea of Azov and one of its largest steel mills.
For López, the fall of Mariúpol has the symbolism that “it is the first real victory of Russia” in the Ukraine war. “It is symbolic and it is important from a geostrategic point of view. It is the first victory that Putin can offer, ”he asserts.
“Azovstal has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance and has in turn become a symbol of Russian tenacity”, tells RTVE.es the professor of Contemporary History at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), Josep Puigsech.
In the steel plant, the last bastion of the resistance in Mariupolthe situation had been desperate for weeks and, according to Puigsech, “the surrender of Mariupol was inevitable”. “You only need to see the images of how the city has been left: practically devastated, the civilian population evacuated, a military redoubt remained… sooner or later it was going to fall definitively,” he adds.
For his part, the Ukrainian political scientist Viktor Savkin believes that, despite the fact that the port city has fallen into the hands of Russia, Ukraine could consider it a triumph that it managed to retain the Russian forces. “Having held out for so long in Mariupol and having managed to keep all these troops from participating in the second offensive in Donetsk and Lugansk they could present it in kyiv as a small victory“, it states.
A step into Russian control of southern Ukraine
Since February 24, Mariupol has been one of the priority targets for Russia, since control of this city deprives Ukraine of one of its most important ports and allows Moscow to take a step towards the eestablishment of a land corridor from the Russian eastern border to the Crimean peninsulaannexed in 2014 by Russia.
“It is one more sum of the Russian project to control this entire strip of southern Ukraine, the control of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and leave open the possibility of extending that strip to Odessa and Transnistria”, explains the UAB professor.
The strong Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol has forced Moscow to dedicate troops to this port city instead of moving them to other fronts. “For kyiv, the very resistance of the soldiers in the steel mill has served to distract a good part of the troops and the Russian advance, while the Ukrainians have used fresh troops to make counterattacks in northern Donbas”, affirms Sepulveda.
“In some fringes of eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian troops have reconquered some areas that the Russians had occupied (…). It seems that situation is more stagnant and a bit negative for Russian interests in Donbas”, indicates Puigsech, who underlines that “the Russian key now will be above all the ability to maintain the military gains it has made”.
In this sense, José Ángel López believes that “as long as the conquests are focused on the easternmost area, it is foreseeable that Russia will be able to maintain control, but if you move to western locations it will be much more complicated”. “It makes me very difficult to think that Russia can control Odessa,” she emphasizes.
For Sepúlveda, “Russia is heading towards a war of attrition” and “he will try to maintain the conquests, but it will not come for free like Crimea”. “That’s the big difference,” underlines the UNED professor.
What will happen to the Ukrainian fighters of Avostal?
Following the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal steel plant, the focus is now on the Ukrainian fighters. Russia affirms that from this Monday 959 soldiers have surrendered. For its part, Ukraine speaks of a combatant evacuation operation who have been transferred to Ukrainian territory under Russian control and has announced that an exchange for Russian prisoners of war is being negotiated.
So far, the future of these soldiers is uncertain. An Russian investigative committee to question Ukrainian fighters who have surrendered in Azovstal, as reported by the TASS news agency, as part of the investigation into what Moscow calls “criminal cases related to the crimes of the Ukrainian regime.” At the same time, the Russian deputy Leonid Slutski has stated that the members of the Azov Battalion deserve the death penalty and has proposed to make an exception in the moratorium on the application of the death penalty in Russia.
“If we stick to what some Duma deputies say, I do not bode well for these poor people, regardless of the character of that battalion”, affirms Professor López. “The International Law of armed conflicts and that of all the Geneva conventions should be applied to them. The declarations of this type of deputies do not foresee anything good”, he asserts.
For his part, Sepúlveda believes that “a part (of the Ukrainian combatants) will be repatriated to Ukraine in exchange for prisoners and another part we will see what happens.” “There have been accusations of terrorism by the Russian authorities. The terrorists were the ones defending the steel mill, according to Russia. Your lot can be quite sad and dark“, Add.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.