This is why Russia can’t conquer Mariupol

Damaged and burned vehicles are seen at a destroyed part of the Illich Iron & Steel Works Metallurgical Plant, as smoke rises from the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal during heavy fighting, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. Mariupol, a strategic port on the Sea of Azov, has been besieged by Russian troops and forces from self-proclaimed separatist areas in eastern Ukraine for more than six weeks. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s latest invasion is the stuff of legend.

From the beginning of the war, the Kremlin’s brutal attempt to force Ukrainians to submit to its control has run head-on into one steely barrier after another.

The latest is literally made of steel.

It’s the Azovstal Steel and Iron Works warehouse in Mariupol. That’s where the Azov Battalion and 36th Marine Brigade have been hiding out and battling Russian forces, tooth and nail, for more than two weeks.

But this is no ordinary warehouse. It’s a miles-long series of buildings that contain a deep, vast, network of bunkers connected by an intricate web of tunnels. Built in 1930, under the control of the Soviet Union, the structure is able to withstand a nuclear attack.

The warehouse and the city have become global symbols of strength and resistance.

“Mariupol is the heart of this war. It is the headquarters of European dignity. It is the fortress, which protects the world’s freedom,” said Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense.

“The brave defenders of Mariupol have been holding the city for 55 days now,” he said. “This is a historic example of courage, love of motherland and self-sacrifice in the name of freedom.”

It’s not clear how many fighters are inside the complex, but there are reports that up to a thousand people — including civilians — have taken refuge there.

The sprawling compound allows the fighters to slip in and out and conduct ambushes, sabotage, guerrilla raids and urban warfare.

While the fighters have brazenly taunted Russia’s forces, they are calling — from deep underground — for help.

“I am commander of Azov regiment,” said Denis Prokopenko in a message on a Telegram channel. “I call to the leaders of the world. Right now, in Mariupol, at ‘Azovstal’ steel factory, where hundreds of civilians are sheltering.”

In the video, Prokopenko said the civilians hiding in the compound are people of all ages. They are mostly women, children and family members of those defending Mariupol.

He senses time is running short, and Russian state media suggests he’s right.

Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, the head of Russia’s National Defense Management Center, was quoted in Ria Novosti, calling on Ukrainian troops remaining at the Azovstal complex to surrender.

If they don’t, he said, they “will face a sad result.”

According to Mizintsev, they have until “14:00 Moscow time on April 20, 2022 to lay down their weapons.”

Russian military phone calls intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence indicate the facility will soon be blanketed with powerful bombs.

Ukraine’s military flatly refused the ultimatum. They continue to ask Western nations for help and express regret that not all of their weapons requests have been fulfilled so far.

“Had Ukraine received the requested military assistance — heavy long-range artillery, combat aircraft, etc. — the situation in Mariupol would not be so horrific as it is now,” said Sak.

But he added: “There is still time — time for the international partners of Ukraine to act. In the name of freedom and humanity, the world must arm Ukraine now.”

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J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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