Desperate Vladimir Putin has ordered his troops on a bloody mission to seize the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol so he can have a victory to gloat over during celebrations in Russia next week, British intelligence believes.
Heavy fighting has now been going on inside the sprawling industrial complex – the last holdout of Ukrainian defenders in the key Black Sea port city – for three days, despite Putin going on Russian state TV just two weeks ago to publicly call off the operation to ‘preserve the lives and health of our soldiers and officers.’
The assault is thought to be linked to May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Russia, when the country marks the surrender of Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War and which Putin typically uses for a chest-beating display of Russian patriotism and military might complete with parades and flag-waving crowds.
Russian commanders have decided to pour men into the complex, despite the heavy casualties they will inevitably suffer, because of ‘the upcoming 9 May Victory Day commemorations and Putin’s desire to have a symbolic success in Ukraine’, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said today.
‘Whilst Ukrainian resistance continues in Azovstal, Russian losses will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbas,’ an intelligence update from the MoD added.
But it is far from certain that the Russian assault can succeed in time. Azovstal is vast: Four square miles of factory buildings, warehouses, elevated walkways and tight alleys that sits on top of a nuclear-bomb-proof network of tunnels where up to 2,000 Ukrainian defenders are holed up alongside hundreds of civilians.
Artillery blasts rock the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol, as the UK says Putin appears to have ordered his commanders to take the complex so he has a ‘symbolic victory’ to brag about
Heavy fighting has now been going on at Azovstal for three days, with clashes reportedly taking place inside the steel works as Russian forces storm inside, despite Putin publicly ordering his generals to call off the operation
Smoke is seen rising over Azovstal, as British intelligence predicts that Putin has privately reversed his order not to attack the complex to give himself a propaganda win to brag about
A Russian tank opens fire on the Azovstal plant, where around 2,000 Ukrainian defenders are said to be holed up having vowed to ‘never surrender’ and ‘stand till the end’
What is Victory Day, and why is it so important to Vladimir Putin?
Victory Day – May 9 – is a public holiday in Russia that marks the surrender of Nazi Germany that ended the Second World War in Europe.
Inaugurated in 1945, it did not become a public holiday until 1965 and even then was only celebrated in some of the Soviet republics.
The holiday gained some level of prominence under Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian President after the Soviet Union dissolved, but the holiday in its current form can be largely credited to Vladimir Putin.
Under his leadership, the day has been turned from a solemn time of remembrance for the estimated 27million Soviets who died during the war into a chest-beating show of nationalist pride and military prowess.
Aside from wreath-laying at war memorials, the day is now known for huge military parades including one which passes through Moscow’s Red Square – usually under the watchful eye of Putin himself.
In past years, the despotic leader has used the parade to showcase Russia’s latest military technology in the form of upgraded tanks and new missiles – particularly nukes.
This year is expected to be no different, but Putin also is expected to use the event to praise his army’s efforts in fighting Ukraine and to drum up support for the invasion which has so-far met with embarrassing defeats.
That has led to speculation that he may use the event to officially declare war on Ukraine, upgrading the conflict from a ‘special military operation’, which would provide a pre-text for mobilising Russia’s military reserves in order to throw more men into the fight.
Others believe he may try to cut his losses and prematurely declare the campaign over, with victory achieved, though it is unclear exactly how that would work since Ukraine will continue to fight and Putin will need a way to explain the body bags that keep arriving back in Russia.
Perhaps the likeliest option is that he will say Russia has achieved great success on the battlefield but Ukraine’s ‘Nazi’ problem runs deeper than at first thought, meaning the war must continue.
A symbolic victory – such as seizing Mariupol – would make this lie easier to sell.
The last time Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2014, Putin used Victory Day to fly to the newly-occupied Crimea and visit Russia’s main naval base at Sevastopol, where he was greeted by large crowds.
Such a move is unlikely this time around, out of fear that Ukraine will try to kill him during such a visit.
Ukrainian commanders – giving daily updates from inside the plant – say they are continuing to hold the line despite ‘bloody fighting’ in ‘extremely difficult’ conditions, and have begged the Russians to call off the assault so that the wounded and civilians can be evacuated.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a top adviser to President Zelesnky, said on Thursday that the defenders had successfully pushed the Russians out of the complex amid heavy clashes – allowing a UN mission to go in on Friday morning to evacuate some of the people trapped there.
Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential staff, said some 500 civilians had been rescued as of Friday morning which included people from Azovstal and the wider city. It is thought they will be taken through Russian-controlled territory to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, following in the footsteps of an earlier evacuation.
Amid Russian assaults on the plant, the wife of one commander spoke out late Thursday to say that he will ‘stand till the end’ and ‘will never surrender’.
Kateryna Prokopenko, who is married to Azov Battalion leader Denys Prokopenko, made the remarks after speaking to her husband on the phone as he made a last stand at the plant.
‘It seemed like words of goodbye,’ she said afterwards. ‘I am going mad from this.’
The Ukrainian military’s General Staff said Friday that ‘the blockade of units of the defense forces in the Azovstal area continues’ and that the Russians, with aviation support, had resumed assault operations to take control of the sprawling plant.
‘There are many wounded (fighters), but they are not surrendering,’ Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. ‘They are holding their positions.’
‘Just imagine this hell! And there are children there,’ he said. ‘More than two months of constant shelling, bombing, constant death.’
The Russians managed to get inside the plant Wednesday with the help of an electrician who knew the layout, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry.
‘He showed them the underground tunnels which are leading to the factory,’ Gerashchenko said in a video.
Zelenskyy said the attack was preventing evacuation of the remaining civilians, even as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said another attempt was underway. ‘We must continue to do all we can to get people out of these hellscapes,’ Guterres said.
The Kremlin denied its troops were storming the plant and has demanded the Ukrainians surrender. They have refused. Russia has also accused the fighters of preventing the civilians from leaving.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its chief objective.
Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, pleaded on Ukrainian TV for the evacuation of civilians and wounded fighters from the steelworks, saying soldiers were ‘dying in agony due to the lack of proper treatment.’
More than 100 civilians were rescued from the steelworks over the weekend. But many previous attempts to open safe corridors from Mariupol have fallen through, with Ukraine blaming shelling and firing by the Russians.
Russian troops riding on the top of an armoured personnel carrier through the streets of Mariupol, as they prepare to join fighting around the Azovstal steel plant
Russian troops are pictured on the streets of Mariupol, which has been almost-totally destroyed by two months of heavy fighting with Ukrainian defenders still holding out inside Azovstal
A Russian soldier checks his rifle while sitting on top of an armoured vehicle, amid heavy fighting at the nearby Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian soldiers are making their last stand
Russian forces have been fighting for control of Mariupol for more than two months and are not yet in full control of the city as Ukrainian troops put up an heroic last defence
A Russian soldier inspects ammunition for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher somewhere close to the frontlines in Mariupol, as a mission to seize control of the steel works continues
Putin will lead Victory Day celebrations on May 9 in Russia – a day he typically uses to project an image of strength and military prowess – and is said to be eager for a ‘symbolic victory’ he can brag about
Meanwhile, 10 weeks into the devastating war, Ukraine’s military claimed it recaptured some areas in the south and repelled other attacks in the east, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions after his abortive attempt to seize Kyiv. Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting village by village.
The General Staff in Kyiv said Russian forces were conducting surveillance flights, and in the hard-hit areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian forces repulsed 11 attacks and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles. Russia gave no immediate acknowledgement of those losses.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russian forces are making only ‘plodding’ progress in the Donbas.
There are growing suggestions that Ukraine might try to widen its push to seize more territory from Russia outside of Kharkiv, its second-largest city.
Ukrainian chief of defense, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said Thursday that a counteroffensive could begin to push Russian forces away from Kharkiv and Izyum, which has been a key node in Russia’s control of the eastern cauldron. Ukraine in recent days has driven Russian troops some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Kharkiv, which has been repeatedly struck by Russian shelling.
Additional Ukrainian advances may spare the city from artillery strikes, as well as force Moscow to divert troops from other areas of the front line.
On Thursday, an American official said the U.S. shared intelligence with Ukraine about the location of a Russian flagship before the mid-April strike that sank it, one of Moscow’s highest-profile failures in the war.
The U.S. has provided ‘a range of intelligence’ that includes locations of warships, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The official said the decision to target the missile cruiser Moskva was purely a Ukrainian decision.
Fearful of new attacks surrounding Victory Day, the mayor of the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk urged residents to leave for the countryside over the long weekend and warned them not to gather in public places.
And the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, a key transit point for evacuees from Mariupol, announced a curfew from Sunday evening through Tuesday morning.
Smoke rises over the Azovstal plant, a sprawling four-square-mile industrial complex that sits above nuclear-bomb-proof tunnels where Ukrainian troops are staging a last stand
Russia has bombarded the Azovstal for days in the hopes of softening up Ukrainian defences and allowing its troops to storm inside, though Ukraine says all attacks have so-far been repulsed
A Russian military truck is seen manouevering along a road in front of the Azovstal plant, which lies at the heart of Mariupol and is the last redoubt of Ukrainian troops defending the city
A view shows a plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol
Mariupol, which had a prewar population of over 400,000, has come to symbolize the misery inflicted by the war. The siege of the city has trapped perhaps 100,000 civilians with little food, water, medicine or heat.
As the battle raged there, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russian bombardment Thursday hit dozens of Ukrainian military targets, including troop concentrations in the east, an artillery battery near the eastern settlement of Zarozhne and rocket launchers near the southern city of Mykolaiv.
The war has devastated Ukraine’s medical infrastructure, Zelenskyy said in a video link to a charity event in the U.K. Nearly 400 health care facilities have been damaged or destroyed, he said.
‘There is simply a catastrophic situation regarding access to medical services and medicines,’ in areas occupied by Russian forces, he said. ‘Even the simplest drugs are lacking.’
With the challenge of mine-clearing and rebuilding after the war in mind, Zelenskyy announced the launch of a global fundraising platform called United24.
At the same time, Poland hosted an international donor conference that raised $6.5 billion in humanitarian aid. The gathering was attended by prime ministers and ambassadors from many European countries, as well as representatives of other nations and some businesses.
In addition, a Ukrainian cabinet body began to develop proposals for a comprehensive postwar reconstruction plan, while Zelenskyy also urged Western allies to put forward a program similar to the post-World War II Marshall Plan plan to help Ukraine rebuild.