This week’s tales of heroism from Mariupol etch into folklore the courage that galvanised global support for Kyiv
March 17, 2023
King Pyrrhus of Epirus seemed to be having a good war when he won the Battle of Asculum against Roman forces in 279 BC. But the Greeks lost many men in the fight, and when the king was congratulated on his success he replied gloomily: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”. Pyrrhus is now remembered for this alone: a victory that was really a defeat.
The Battle of Azovstal was fought in the huge steelworks at Mariupol in April and May of last year. The Ukrainian forces eventually lost. The Russians won, but at huge cost. The battle was Vladimir Putin’s pyrrhic victory, a military success but a moral and political disaster that will overshadow the rest of his brutal and unnecessary war.
The siege of Azovstal is already enshrined in folklore as Ukraine’s Dunkirk, a battle ending in retreat that has nonetheless become a stirring symbol of heroism, defiance and resistance. In military terms, it was a significant reverse for Ukraine, the moment when Mariupol was finally overrun and Russia’s land bridge to Crimea secured. But historians will look back at the battle as the costliest victory of Putin’s war.
By mid-April most of Mariupol had been destroyed by Russian shelling. Only the enormous Azovstal iron and steel works remained, as one witness put it, a “fortress within the city”. An icon of Soviet industrial productivity, the factory once churned out six million tonnes of steel a year and produced the metal to entomb radioactive Chernobyl; surrounded by water on three sides, with a network of underground tunnels, workshops and 36 concrete nuclear bunkers some 20 feet below ground, Azovstal was the ideal setting for a gallant last stand.
While Mariupol itself was being bombed back to mud and occupied by Russian forces, a force of regular Ukrainian marines, foreign volunteers and soldiers of the nationalist Azov Battalion holed up inside the steelworks, along with dozens of civilians, and refused to surrender. Putin ordered his troops to blockade the plant, “so not even a fly can escape”.
The stand-off continued for 12 brutal weeks. In The Times this week, Max Tucker vividly described the near-suicidal bravery of the Ukrainian helicopter pilots who flew repeated missions to resupply the defenders with weapons and medicine, and evacuate the wounded.
Conditions inside the freezing, sunless, foetid bunkers became increasingly apocalyptic as food and water stocks dwindled. The Russians intensified their bombardment of the plant using thermobaric weapons. Amputations were carried out without sufficient anaesthetic. By the end, the defenders were down to one meal a day of tinned meat mashed with water. The civilians, including 14 famished children, were evacuated on April 30, but the Ukrainian soldiers clung on. Russian infantry repeatedly attempted to break through Azovstal’s perimeter and were repelled.
A generator continued to provide power to maintain the internet and crucial contact with the outside world. Unlike other terrible sieges in history, this one could be followed in real time. As one of the besieged men observed: “It feels like I’ve landed in a hellish reality show in which us soldiers fight for our lives and the whole world watches this interesting episode. Pain, suffering, hunger, misery, tears, fears, death. It’s all real.”
To the outside world, the defence of Azovstal became a desperate symbol of Ukrainians’ willingness to fight and die for their land, despite overwhelming odds. The story even penetrated popular culture. During the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, the frontman for the Ukrainian rap group Kalush Orchestra (which went on to win), shouted: “I ask all of you, please help Azovstal, right now!”
Realistically, the defenders could not be helped. The helicopter relief flights flew in and out of Azovstal nearly 30 times and lost three aircraft. But even this lifeline became impossible and the plant was cut off. The Ukrainian presidency declared: “The enemy is trying to strangle the final resistance of the defenders of Mariupol in the Azovstal area”.
Finally, on May 16, Ukraine’s supreme military command ordered the Azov Battalion and the other defenders to surrender. “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,” President Zelensky declared in a televised address.
Some 2,500 Ukrainian fighters emerged from the ruined steel plant, before being loaded on to buses and taken into captivity (some were later swapped in a prisoner exchange). Russia’s defence ministry described the outcome as a Russian victory. History will not see it that way.
The long siege prevented up to 17 Russian battle groups, some 12,000 troops, from redeploying to the battle further east in Donbas. It blunted the Russian assault and gave Ukrainian forces breathing space to build up defences for the next attacks.
Yet more important than the tactical effect was Azovstal’s galvanising impact on the narrative of the war. Like the British “victory” at the Battle of Bunker Hill in the first stages of the American Revolutionary War, it spurred resistance and demonstrated to the world, at a critical juncture, Ukraine’s determination to defend itself against Russian aggression. Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the utter destruction of Mariupol is an episode that will live in infamy, the defining crime of an unjust war. The steel plant siege is Ukraine’s equivalent of the Battle of the Alamo, a defeat that became an instant resistance myth.
Russia dominated the battlefield in the end but Ukraine achieved an overwhelming triumph in world public opinion, snatching moral victory from the jaws of military defeat. The martyrs and survivors of Azovstal “are forever in history”, says Ukraine’s military command.
Putin is already attempting to erase that memory. Moscow has announced plans to flatten what remains of the mighty steelworks and build a “technopark” over the site. But it is impossible to concrete over history.
Like King Pyrrhus, Putin’s name will for ever be linked to a battle that he won and, in winning, lost.
Ben Macintyre is a columnist and Associate Editor on The Times. He has worked as the newspaper’s correspondent in New York, Paris and Washington. He is the author of nine previous books including Agent Zigzag, shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Galaxy British Book Award for Biography of the Year 2008, and the no. 1 bestsellers A Spy Among Friends, Operation Mincemeat, Double Cross and SAS: Rogue Heroes.