Alexander Ermoshenko via Reuters
WAR IN UKRAINE – Though the city’s fall seems inevitable, Mariupol has not yet fallen to the Russians and the resistance continues at the legendary Azovstal factory. In fact, the Russian army is blocking a group of militants hiding in the tunnels of this huge industrial complex.
The battle for this strategic port city takes place on an area of over 11 km² along the Azor Sea. An area criss-crossed by railroads, warehouses, coke ovens, various factories and chimneys. Reduced visibility, holes, obstacles, traps at every turn, steel and concrete as far as the eye can see are the fate of the fighters on site. But everything happens below the surface: the Azovstal factory hides a real city consisting of underground networks.
Springs create more than 20 kilometers of tunnels that are up to 30 meters deep. The information could not be verified by AFP from a reliable source, while the last Western journalists left the city in mid-March. In any case, part of the Ukrainian army retreated here and resisted Russian attacks for weeks.
A shelter for the Ukrainian military, the Azov battalion and a thousand civilians
Azovstal was originally built in the early Soviet era and later rebuilt after the Nazi occupation of Mariupol between 1941 and 1943 left it in ruins, notes Washington Post. It belongs to the Metinvest group, which is controlled by the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov.
As one of the largest steel mills in Europe, it typically processes more than 4 million tons of crude steel per year and employs tens of thousands of people.
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The military isn’t the only one using the factory for protection, however, with no fewer than 1,000 civilians also hiding in the underground network, according to the Mariupol Municipal Council.
A highly advantageous strategic configuration…
It must be said that this underground labyrinth offers ideal protection and a near-perfect strategic retreat. How do you represent the industrial area? “It’s a city within a city and there are several underground floors from the Soviet era, you can’t bomb from above, you have to clean the underground. It will take time,” admitted Edouard Basurin, representative of the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, at the end of March.
via Associated Press
Entering the tunnels is “impossible” for Russian forces, confirms Alexander Grinberg, an analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy (JISS). They “can try, but they’ll be slaughtered because the tunnel defenders have the ultimate tactical advantage.”
Because the tunnels remain very effective in creating insecurity in the opponent. They reduce the effectiveness of enemy artillery, airstrikes, infantry, and snipers. They silence satellite surveillance and complicate technical reconnaissance, giving lowland fighters a real avenue of movement.
But “the network has to be really dense. They must also have ammo, food and drink stored. That means a big period of preparation,” a French military official told AFP.
… but can turn against its occupants
Of course, fighting in the tunnels of a besieged factory doesn’t only have advantages. James Rands, an analyst at the private British intelligence institute Janes, specifically mentions the necessary and delicate training of soldiers. “Closing rooms introduces melee combat and reduces the effectiveness of certain weapons,” he notes. Explosives get stronger, but the blast effect can backfire.
At a tactical level, “leadership and control is extremely difficult. Standard communications work poorly and situational awareness is poor as tunnels are generally poorly mapped,” adds James Rands.
Not to mention the hell of medical evacuations. In theory, “an hour of progress in an underground network costs 10 hours in evacuating victims,” he says.
The cracks in the fortress
“These are huge territories with workshops that cannot be destroyed from the air, so the Russians use heavy bombs,” he explains Guardian Sergiy Zgurets, a military analyst.
But is this underground citadel impregnable? This would require the Ukrainian Armed Forces to have a sufficient amount of all necessary equipment, such as night vision goggles. And that’s probably not the case.
And they must compensate for the possible use of water by the Russians to drown the tunnels and the fighters there, or of gas and other chemical products to make all life inside unbearable or even impossible.
“So the Russians started talking about a possible chemical attack; it’s the only way to smoke them out,” said Oleh Zhdanov, a Kyiv-based military analyst quoted by The guard. On this issue, the UK announced on April 12 that it was trying to verify information about the possible use of chemical weapons in Mariupol. Which hasn’t been confirmed yet.
With a pre-war population of around 450,000, Mariupol is one of the last urban areas in Donetsk not fully under Russian control. Its capture would give Russian forces a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
See also on The HuffPost: Ukraine: Six dead in ‘powerful’ rocket attacks on Lviv