The Azovstal Steel Factory, April 2022
WARNING: Do not attempt to visit Mariupol without first reading our Mariupol travel advisory.
This is the second in a series of short articles examining the facts and evidence underlying specific events taking place in the war in Ukraine. The goal is to establish the facts of those events on the balance of probabilities where there has been significant disputes in the media and elsewhere; and also to highlight some things taken for granted in the media but that in fact we simply don't know.
Beginning in March 2022, the Russian Armed Forces began a siege of the coastal city of Mariupol (430,000) on the Sea of Azov in order to obtain control of the road through Mariupol that runs from Melitopol (west of Mariupol) to Donetsk (east of Mariupol). The city was besieged, rather than falling voluntarily to Russian forces as had a number of other cities in the Russian-dominated south of Ukraine (including Melitopol, Donetsk - for the most part it fell voluntarily, back in 2014, but there was some fierce fighting near the airport, and Kherson (west of Melitopol)). Mariupol's exceptionalism was due to the presence of the so-called Azov Brigades, a series of Ukrainian military units from northern Ukraine and without family connections to the Mariupol region, who travelled in the numbers of several thousands to Mariupol to fight the Russians for it, apparently on the pay cheque of Rinat Akhmetov. He is/was Ukraine's richest man, who had also been funding anti-Russian political groups in Kyiv.
Because the Azov Brigades decided to fight street to street, it took a couple of weeks of intensive street fighting and shelling by Russian forces to occupy the city. In the event the western and eastern suburbs saw the most fighting and devastation, whereas the centre was relatively untouched.
Damage to the city was very serious - the worst we have seen in the war in Ukraine to date - and it is estimated that over half the civilian population fled. Nonetheless the Russians captured the city by mid-April.
The greater majority of the Azov Brigade fighters were killed or taken as Prisoners of War. About 1,000 of them, so we were initially told by Ukrainian media sources, took refuge in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Factory east of the centre of Mariupol. At the time of writing, Azovstal remains under siege by Russian forces. The steel factory has been sealed off from the outside world.
Although Ukrainian sources say that resources have been dropped to support the besieged troops by helicopter in the middle of the night, there is no evidence of this. Moreover it is very difficult for supply helicopters to fly at night without being easily shot down.
In the last ten days of April 2022, a series of videos started emerging apparently showing civilians sheltering in the Azovstal Steel Factory as well as soldiers. This begs the question how the videos, one of which was 10 minutes long (1GB), emerged from the besieged steel factory given that there has been and remains a total communications blackout in respect of Mariupol and Donetsk. You cannot use telephone, email, or any other form of electronic communication in or out.
It would take an average satellite 'phone perhaps 18 days to transmit a 1 Gigabyte video at a typical speed of 5,000 bits per second. So the videos have not left the factory via satellite link.
Azovstal is the second biggest steel factory in Europe. The biggest is Illich Iron and Steel Works, also in Mariupol.
Whereas Azovstal has been occupied by Azov Brigade soldiers (at least so it appears) and civilians (again, so it appears), Illich has been entirely undamaged during the battle for Mariupol.
Azovstal is owned by Putin's adversary Rinat Akhmetov. Illich is owned by a Putin ally.
The Russian Armed Forces are now pulverising Azovstal, Akhmetov's biggest single asset, into the ground on the pretext that it is full of Azov Brigade troops hiding out. Illich will remain standing and untouched, meaning that the post-war economy of Mariupol will be entirely dominated by a Putin ally.
We do not know actually how the videos emerging were taken; who by; where; who the people in them are (some of the persons in the videos are wearing clean and smart Russian military fatigues, unusual for persons besieged in tunnels underneath a steel factory that is under bombardment); or how they have been smuggled into the outside world. We may never know who produced these videos or where, how they emerged into the outside world.
What we do know is that very soon Mr Akhmetov will not have any assets of significance left in Mariupol; once Azovstal is damaged beyond repair, the battle of Mariupol will be over.
Moreover we tentatively predict that once sufficient structural damage has been undertaken to Azovstal to ensure that it can never again be used as a steel works and thereby serve as the economic powerhouse for Mr Akhmetov, the Russian Armed Forces will use poisoned gas to empty its tunnels of the remaining fighters. We make no assertion about the legality or morality of such a course; this is simply a prediction of likely Russian actions.
We have been asked why Mariupol is so strategically important as to have the two biggest iron and steelworks in Europe.
The short answer is because Donbass has some of the largest and highest quality deposits of iron ore and good quality metallurgical (coking) coal in Europe. And Mariupol is the nearest port to the Donbass's deposits.
In the Soviet era, the steel manufactured at Illich was used for the most part for domestic (Soviet) purposes. The fact that Mariupol is a de facto necessary stop on river-sea vessels that plough the Volga-Don canal gave Mariupol steel access to all the major waterways of Russia, including Moscow and the Caspian Sea.
Another destination for Illich steel was Nikolaev, that had the largest shipbuilding works in Europe until the Soviet Union collapsed. (The ill-fated cruiser the Moskva was constructed in Nikolaev.) Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Nikolaev shipbuilding works have lain idle. But Russia desperately wants to retake Nikolaev without destroying the city, which is why Ukraine has sent agitators to Nikolaev to try to provoke street fighting.
By contrast, in accordance with Soviet command economy principles, Azovstal was used during the Soviet period to sell steel to the west and the rest of the world.
Hence when Ukraine became independent on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rinat Akhmetov, in liaison with the West, took the whole of Azovstal for himself and kept trading with the west.
That is why Akhmetov funded pro-western movements in Kyiv and why he is fighting so hard (but has essentially failed) to keep Mariupol as a town for 'western steel' rather than for 'Soviet steel'.
The Kremlin may well intend to reopen Nikolaev shipbuilding facilities using Illich steel, eliminating Akhmetov's Azovstal western steel.
Mariupol and the Sea of Azov more generally are sites for ship-to-ship transshipment of Caspian Sea hydrocarbons (from Baku (crude) and Turkmenbashi (refined products)) from river-sea vessels that can navigate the Volga-Don Canal; and ocean-going vessels that proceed from Azov to the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and world markets.
Hence cargoes going northeast through Russian rivers from Mariupol are substantially steel; those coming from northeast through Russian rivers are substantially hydrocarbons.
The Kremlin's grand plan for the region may be to recreate these industrial arteries as they were in Soviet times