The heroic battle of the Ukrainian army at the Azovstal Steelworks deserves a place in military history
Troy. Leningrad. The Alamo. The defense of Azovstal and Mariupol enters the list of the most bitter and painful sieges in history. But was it worth it?
The Ukrainian government and military insist that Azovstal Steel Plant defenders managed to tie down Russian forces that could have been deployed elsewhere.
“They did not allow the enemy to move groups of up to 17 tactical battalion groups (BTGs) — about 20,000 men — to other areas,” a Ukrainian army spokesman said in a statement yesterday morning.
In particular, Azovstal prevented the Russians from taking Zaporizhia or closing their encirclement in Donbass, he added.
An Azov regiment commander made the same claim when announcing the withdrawal.
Western officials believe Russia deployed 120-125 BTGs for its first invasion of Ukraine in February. While these claims are aimed in part at softening the blow of defeat, they have merit.
But there are two other significant strategic implications of the end of this extraordinary stand.
The first is morale; The defense of Mariupol became a symbol of the broader Ukrainian resistance. Their ultimate defeat will be counted as a victory by Russian propaganda.
Because of this, the Ukrainian military and government refuse to call the fall of Azovstal a surrender. It is, they emphasize, an “evacuation”.
Also, the deal with the Russians included strict terms, including a promise by the Russians not to release any footage.
The second relates to Vladimir Putin’s main war goals. On April 21, Putin declared the battle for Mariupol effectively won and, in a meeting staged in front of the cameras, urged Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, to call off the “pointless” attack on the last defenders in Azovstal.
“Seal it so even a fly can’t get through,” he said.
A look at the map was enough to show why that wasn’t really an option. Russia’s strategic goal on the Azov Sea coast was to open a land corridor from mainland Russia to Crimea. The M14 coastal highway, the only road connecting the Russian city of Rostov with Crimea, runs right through Mariupol and literally in the shadow of the Azovstal blast furnaces.
In order to really secure the land bridge, the steelworks had to fall. And the promise to halt offensive operations was broken almost as soon as it was made.
Thus, at immense cost and with a great deal of delay, Putin can finally say that he has achieved one of his reduced war goals. The others, however, remain elusive. Victory is utterly Pyrrhic.
History offers interesting lessons about the importance of this battle for the rest of the war. Comparisons have already been made between Azovstal and Brest Fortress, the border fortress in modern-day western Belarus that was one of the first Soviet positions to be attacked by the Nazis in 1941.
Though the fortress was quickly overrun, a horde of hopelessly outnumbered Red Army soldiers held out for eight days, using deep tunnels to resist repeated German attacks.
Like the Russians at Azovstal, the Germans found it impossible to crush the defenses with infantry and had to resort to massive Luftwaffe airstrikes to break down resistance.
There are stories of loners surviving in the tunnels for more than a month. But despite their undoubted heroism, inflated to legendary proportions by Soviet post-war propaganda, the last stand at Brest had little impact on the progress of the Nazi invasion.
A better analogy might be the Siege of Tobruk in 1941, when Australian, Indian, Polish, Czech and British forces held an isolated Libyan port against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps for months, denying the Germans a key supply port for their attack on Egypt.
But the Tobruk Rats were supplied by sea and eventually defeated by a British counter-offensive.
A closer and most tantalizing parallel might come from an earlier siege.
In the spring of 1800, a French army under Andre Massena was besieged at Genoa by an Austrian force that outnumbered them by more than two to one.
Like the Mariupol defenders, they were surrounded by land and sea with no hope of help or supplies. Like Azovstal’s defenders, they refused to surrender despite running out of food, ammunition, and medical supplies.
After a two-month siege and an outbreak of plague, a starving Massena finally agreed to retreat. But while the Austrians had been concentrating on conquering Genoa, Napoleon had raised a new army, marched south and crossed the Alps. Eight days after Genoa fell, he defeated them at the Battle of Marengo.
The Austrian Chief of Staff remarked that the campaign was really won “before Genoa”. Could Mariupol defenders have done the same for Ukraine?
The war still hangs in the balance. Some Western officials are already calling it a “stalemate.” Others have warned of a grueling war of attrition that could last for years.
And yet Russia’s Donbass offensive has clearly lost momentum. The planned encirclement of the Donbass never materialized, and a Ukrainian counter-offensive near Kharkiv now threatens Russian supply lines to Izyum.
Mikhail Khodarenok, a Russian military analyst, warned on a state television talk show that Ukraine was ready to mobilize up to a million men.
If they can push the Russians back to the frontier, future historians will examine how a handful of men and women in the Azovstal tunnels bought time for one of history’s most remarkable military reversals.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/ukrainian-armys-heroic-stand-at-azovstal-steelworks-is-worthy-of-a-place-in-military-history-41660569.html The heroic battle of the Ukrainian army at the Azovstal Steelworks deserves a place in military history