On 9 May 2022, the world’s attention was fixed on Victory Day celebrations in Moscow’s Red Square.
Russia’s short and stooping, possibly terminally ill, dictator stood at the platform and read his speech on "the importance of peace" from a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, his artillery, tank, air, and missile forces were continuing to plunge the neighbouring country deeper into the war’s horror.
Without exaggeration, publications all over the world were listening to the speech very closely, anxiously awaiting the mention of "the declaration of war," "general mobilisation," "nuclear strike"…
Meanwhile, a thousand kilometres to the south of Moscow, the Russian army in Mariupol was looking, just as closely, at a markedly different setting, moments after another unsuccessful attempt to storm the Azovstal plant.
Several armoured vehicles bearing the markings of the Russian army approached the besieged Azovstal plant, which Russia had relentlessly bombed and stormed every day over the previous several weeks– in complete silence (!).
Commanders of the Ukrainian units, which had been defending this last plot of Mariupol land still not occupied by Russia, appeared at the entry to the plant, got into the vehicles, and were driven to the Russian headquarters.
Several hours later, the cars returned to Azovstal and Redis [call-sign of Denys Prokopenko, Commander of the Azov Regiment - ed.] and other commanders of the Mariupol garrison ran from the cars back to the war-torn workshops of the plant – and the war resumed. As if nothing had happened.
In reality, a very important thing happened in these few hours of ceasefire: Ukrainian and Russian delegations, joined by the leaders of Mariupol defenders, had agreed the procedure according to which the Ukrainian troops would be able to leave the bloody mess that Russia had turned Azovstal into.
The question of Mariupol’s defence is one of the most emotionally taxing ones in this war. As well as one of the least covered. This article does not attempt to address all of the questions that have circulated around Mariupol and Azovstal.
It is rather a first approximation, an attempt to record the pivotal moments in the most tragic story of the first phase of Russia’s full-scale aggression in Ukraine, hot on the heels of the events.
Ukrainska Pravda has gathered information from all key government structures involved in the rescue operation of the Azovstal defenders. All of them agreed to talk off the record only. A lot of what they told us has not been included in this text in order to avoid harming those Ukrainian soldiers who are still alive and, in some cases, insulting the memory of the dead.
The tragedy that is the siege of Mariupol comprises two main sections: Chonhar and Volnovakha.
"There were two reasons why the siege happened. First, the Russians’ incomprehensible breakthrough from Crimea, which was not stopped by anyone. How could it be that the Russian convoys that set out from Crimea only stopped for the first time in Melitopol, when they simply ran out of diesel?
Second, Mariupol’s siege became unavoidable when Volnovakha was lost [Volnovakha was the last line of defence to the north of Mariupol - ed.]. After heavy fighting, when the Russians had erased this city off the face of the earth, our troops were forced to retreat. And we didn’t have any other strong points where we could prevent the encirclement of Mariupol," a Ukrainian law official who was communicating with the Azov Regiment explained off the record.
The Crimean breakthrough, the nature of which will have to be investigated in detail in the future, was pivotal because the enemy’s fast approach forced the encircled Ukrainian forces to withdraw from the positions which they had spent a long time reinforcing to the city which was not yet prepared for war.
"If all the cities, beginning with Henichesk, Melitopol, and Berdiansk, had held their defence as firmly and fought back as decisively [as the defenders of Mariupol did - ed.], then the enemy would never have covered the distance between Crimea and Mariupol in four days. Since that did not happen, we ended up encircled," Denys Prokopenko, the commander of the Azov Regiment explained in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.
In Mariupol itself, several units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Azov Regiment, border guards, national guards, regular police and Security Service of Ukraine officers ended up together without any preparation or harmonisation. Their main problem became the lack of unified command.
During the first phase of the siege of Mariupol, each of these units was receiving orders from their own chain of command in Kyiv, which has led to complete disorganisation and not the most efficient use of available resources. The soldiers had to compensate for this lack of coordination with their own heroic efforts. Despite these efforts, the lack of organisation claimed Mariupol’s most important resources: time, the lives of the defenders, and ammunition.
"In order to understand what has really happened in Mariupol we would have to know the truth about what happened to each of the forces defending the city. At least so that we can avoid such mistakes in the future," an Ukrainska Pravda source who had been involved in "the Mariupol case" explained.
In the end, the concentration of the enemy troops and weapons around Mariupol has become so critical that the Ukrainian forces were forced to gradually retreat to more favourable positions, while still fighting heroically and with great professionalism for each building. The tragically known Azovstal plant, with its countless underground bunkers and shelters, numerous obstacles, and solid defence structures became the place to which the Ukrainian forces retreated.
"But when we entered the plant, our other military problems were compounded by yet one more: several thousand civilians. Those people were already there, they’d been coming to the plant’s shelters to hide from bombs and shelling since the first days of the war. They were regular local residents, Azovstal workers, their children and families, and people who just lived nearby," an Ukrainska Pravda source who was also at the Azovstal plant said.
The breaking of the siege
"It was possible to break the siege of Mariupol during the first phases, but as each day passed, it became less and less so. If there had been enough forces to conduct a breakthrough operation in the first weeks [of the siege - ed.], the guys could have been freed. We probably couldn’t have held the city, but we could have rescued our troops," a high-ranking military official said.
According to the Ukrainska Pravda sources, President Zelenskyy and high-ranking military officials were both optimistic as to the possibility of the breaking of the siege of Mariupol.
As a result, one attempt to break the siege of Mariupol was not only planned, but executed. According to the investigation by Ukrainska Pravda, after several weeks of the bloody siege of Mariupol, a group of Ukrainian troops under the command of Ukraine’s Chief Intelligence Directorate set off for Mariupol from Huliaipole in order to break into the city.
This group of troops comprised Chief Intelligence Directorate officers, soldiers from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and Azov Regiment fighters, including Andrii Biletskyi, the leader of the National Corps.
"They were expecting to get over 80 pieces of tanks and armoured vehicles. But when push came to shove, there were only a couple of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armoured vehicles – under 20 pieces in all. But the group began advancing on Mariupol. It managed to cover some 10-15km before it met intense resistance and was forced to retreat," said a Ukrainska Pravda source familiar with the operation.
In order for the siege to be successfully broken, there had to be a simultaneous effort by the Ukrainian forces outside Mariupol trying to break into the city, and a breakthrough attempt coming from the opposite direction, conducted by the Mariupol garrison inside the city. This became impossible after one event.
"The actions of the 36th Marines Brigade cannot be logically explained…First, one of its battalions suddenly surrendered – this was as early as 4 April. As a result, we lost the only communication route between Azov [the Azov Regiment - ed.] and the 36th Brigade available at the time. Then the commander of the 36th Brigade suddenly made the decision, without warning anyone, to just attempt a breakthrough in an unspecified direction, therefore losing a lot of his people. So a lot of people were left to their own devices and they just ended up as Russian prisoners," Prokopenko said in an interview.
"The marines surrendered with their tanks, MLRS, ammunition…They significantly weakened the defence forces. We could have lasted a lot longer with those resources," another Ukrainska Pravda source close to the Azov Regiment said.
"They also need to be understood. To live under daily shelling, which never stops, with the minimum of food and water…Not everyone is capable of that, even just psychologically. It’s difficult to imagine how horrible the reality of that is. That’s why the commander took the decision that he did," another source from intelligence said.
Either way, the decision made by Volodymyr Baraniuk, the commander of the marines, had extremely negative strategic outcomes for the remaining defenders of Mariupol.
After those events, it became clear that small units of Ukrainian forces would not be able to break the siege of Mariupol from the unoccupied territory [outside Mariupol - ed.] on any of the fronts. Azovstal defenders had only one option left – to attempt to break the siege from within Mariupol. But that was not really an option, either.
"There was little chance of success, but there were no other routes to escape either. Only combat-ready fighters could take part in a breakthrough operation: neither the civilians, nor the wounded, nor the dead could be brought along on such an operation. The commanders would not have been able to leave behind their dead comrades or those who were still alive. They just wouldn’t have been able to," a military official who had been communicating with the Azov Regiment all along said.
Talks about a non-military option for the evacuation of the Mariupol garrison began almost immediately after the city was completely encircled and blockaded.
The earliest attempt on behalf of the Ukrainian government to get its soldiers out of Mariupol that Ukrainska Pravda has found out about took place on 29 March.
That day, Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defence of Ukraine and a member of the Ukrainian negotiating delegation, held a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey after a round of peace talks in Istanbul.
The meeting concerned a relatively little known procedure: extraction. Before the events in Mariupol, only military and armed conflict enthusiasts would have known about its meaning.
Generally speaking, extraction is a form of military evacuation, when troops from enemy-occupied territories are evacuated to a safe area.
More specifically, Ukraine asked Turkey to use Turkish ships to take the wounded and the unharmed Ukrainian soldiers from Mariupol to Turkish territory. The wounded soldiers were to receive treatment there, and the rest would stay until the war was over.
According to the Ukrainian delegation, Putin first considered this option seriously and with willingness but has later point-blank refused it, for reasons that remain unknown, and has defined his vision as "civilians get out, military surrenders."
Turkey’s offer has resurfaced on numerous occasions. Those European leaders who still maintain contact with Putin have also attempted to join Turkey’s plan.
The president of Switzerland put forward a similar initiative in early May.
"As a neutral country and country where the Geneva Convention [that establishes international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war - ed.] was signed, Switzerland was prepared to guarantee the treatment of the wounded and that the unharmed soldiers would not return to the battlefield as long as the war lasts. But Putin didn’t hear this proposition," a member of President Zelenskyy’s diplomatic team told Ukrainska Pravda.
It would be no exaggeration to say that a list of those with whom the President of Ukraine alone (setting aside other individuals and organisations who made similar attempts) tried to find a diplomatic solution to free the defenders of Mariupol included all world leaders, from the president of the United States of America to the Pope.
Yet even when the entire world was begging Putin to just be a human being, the Russian president remained unmoved: "civilians get out, military surrenders." It might not be due to Putin’s lack of empathy, but the fact that he was playing a different game, in which he made moves by moving bodies across the Azovstal board.
"The situation was a psychological trap in the broadest sense. Do you know how one sniper can wipe out an entire unit? He [sic.] has to wound one person and wait until the others come to rescue him [sic.]. And then he can shoot the one who’s rescuing, and each other person who comes to their aid.
The situation at Azovstal was the same. Every day, the Russians increased the number of the wounded and – via media attention – were provoking the Ukrainian government to conduct a rescue operation. In order to draw even more forces there, to make us transfer assault units from other fronts in order to break the siege. Which would have been doomed," a Ukrainian intelligence officer explained.
While the political leaders were looking for a global solution, the defenders of Azovstal had other, more down-to-earth concerns. In order to survive until some agreement was reached, they needed – at the very least – weapons to fight with and medicines with which to treat their wounded.
Mariupol is a port city, nearly half of which faces the sea. What was the gateway to the rest of the world in the past has now become a prison wall – Ukraine could not deliver any supplies to Mariupol via the sea.
Neither could it do so via land, which had been captured by Russian troops. Though the sky was the only remaining option. Russian fighter and bomber jets were dominating the skies over Mariupol, but it was the only remaining way to reach the defenders of Azovstal.
The Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine was responsible for reinforcement and other supplies to Mariupol. Mi-8 army helicopters were used to conduct these flights.
According to Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the Chief Intelligence Directorate, 16 Mi-8 military helicopters delivered aid to Azovstal; once, they even brought 72 Azov Regiment fighters to the plant.
In total, seven such helicopter operations took place, according to the information obtained by Ukrainska Pravda. They flew to Mariupol at night, at very low altitudes, along routes which allowed them to avoid anti-aircraft defence equipment. They brought medicines, ammunition, food, and water, and took back the most heavily wounded.
"It is extremely difficult to fly such a helicopter. It’s flying right above ground, like you’re driving a car. But the helicopter’s much faster, you’re just flying at an insane speed at a critically low altitude.
And then – boom, a power line. The pilot has to immediately gain altitude, fly over the power line, and instantly drop back down. Like an upside-down letter ‘U’ at an insanely high speed. You can chuck up your own guts, if I’m honest, from flying like that," a former high-ranking military official with experience of such flights in the east of Ukraine has told Ukrainska Pravda.
According to the information obtained by Ukrainska Pravda, Ukraine lost several helicopters during such missions.
"During the fifth flight, the group was spotted on its way back from Mariupol and one of the helicopters was shot down.
During the seventh mission, also on the way back, one of the helicopters caught fire and crashed on the occupied territory. Another rescue helicopter was sent from Dnipro in order to extract those who survived the crash. But an ambush was laid and MANPADS shot down this helicopter. They’re still lying there now, like in the movies – one next to the other," a source in the military familiar with the incident told Ukrainska Pravda.
Interestingly, Russian propaganda has reported that Ukrainian helicopters were shot down, President Zelenskyy announced his admiration for the courage of the Ukrainian pilots, but no details have ever been disclosed.
With one exception: Ukrainian soldiers have published an interview with one of the pilots whose group was attacked.
The seventh and the last helicopter supply mission took place around late April-early May, 20 or so days before Azovstal defenders got out, according to Ukrainska Pravda’s information.
Getting out from Azovstal
"It’s always difficult to imagine what the Russians are thinking and understand what’s going on in their mind. But I think that the international pressure and the context within which the Azovstal situation was unfolding made them understand that they might enter the consciousness of future generations as fascists. And this is what forced them to reach some agreements," an official from the Office of the President working closely with Andrii Yermak [Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine - ed.] insisted in a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda.
"In addition, the president has clearly said that we will withdraw from all negotiations if the defenders of Mariupol are killed," he added when answering the question about what might have forced Moscow to agree to solve the Mariupol crisis.
The first more or less working solution to free the Ukrainian garrison was devised with the participation of Davyd Arakhamiia, the head of the Ukrainian negotiating delegation.
"In April Davyd reached an agreement, Russia was ready to let everyone get out, even Bortnikov [the head of the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service - ed.] had agreed to come to Mariupol in person as a guarantor for the evacuation of everyone remaining at Azovstal. The wounded were supposed to be transferred to a hospital in Enerhodar straightaway, and all the unharmed soldiers were to be brought together somewhere and from there taken straight to prisoner exchange," a source close to Zelenskyy involved in the negotiations told Ukrainska Pravda.
"But the defenders of the plant, Redis [the Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko - ed.] and others, refused. They believed that surrendering would mean death. We couldn’t force them into doing it from here in Kyiv. We said ‘Okay, you know better what’s better for you’," the source added.
The defenders’ fears are easy to understand, as soldiers who were supposed to be kept alive in Russian captivity have been reported dead on multiple occasions. The most famous story is that of the Azov Regiment soldier named Dan, who was captured by Russia; on 30 April, his mother received a picture of her dead son.
After the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service - ed.], Mariupol’s question was taken up by the Russian Chief Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff and its Ukrainian counterpart: the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine. The latter received the mantle from Iryna Vereshchuk, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, who was a source of complaints from the defenders of Azovstal themselves.
The intelligence directorate has managed to organise much more dynamic talks, though it remains unclear what served as an impetus for this.
"This was a big operational game of intelligence. Our Chief Intelligence Directorate obtained intelligence that there was a slim window of opportunity to get the people out. Due to infighting among the Russian services there was an opportunity to get out of Azovstal in just those few days. And we seized this opportunity," an intelligence source told Ukrainska Pravda.
It was physically impossible to delay the exit from Azovstal.
According to information received by Ukrainska Pravda reporters from soldiers at Azovstal, in the days leading up to the evacuation up to 30 people died every day, and the number of the wounded was even higher.
The situation with water was critical, too. The defenders had to resort to drinking technical water, often from the radiators. And even then there was only enough to share a cup a day between several people.
The sanitary situation was the most critical. The lack of antibiotics, clean air, and sterile tools led to festering infections, even with minor injuries.
"The situation at the plant itself, according to our negotiators, who entered it during the negotiations, was frightening. To illustrate the scale of the problems: in the hospital, where dozens of people had to be operated on daily, maggots could be found in bandages several days after they’d been applied," a source familiar with the course of Azovstal negotiations.
"But our fighters were prepared to stand until the last soldier remained, they still had some weapons. So this could have lasted much longer," he added.
In early May, the initial phases of the evacuation of people from Azovstal took place: the Russians first agreed to let out the civilians, who have survived weeks of horrible bombings and whose presence at the plant Russia has at first outright denied.
The negotiations mentioned at the beginning of this article, where the Ukrainian soldiers themselves were able to negotiate the conditions of their release, took place on 9 May.
"This can categorically not be called ‘a surrender’. The marines from the Illych steel works – they surrendered. But it would be unfair to say that about the Azovstal defenders.
First of all, they did not surrender their arms to Russians. All of the Azovstal fighters gave their weapons back to their officers, each of them handed over their weapons to their commander, who shook their hand, thanked them for their service, and apologised for not winning, and only then did the fighters walk over to the Russians," an intelligence source said.
But this was not the Ukrainians’ main demand. Ukrainian intelligence and the soldiers were most of all fighting to ensure that the Chief Intelligence Directorate would be exclusively responsible for their detention. This was the soldiers’ only opportunity to ascertain that the Geneva Convention would apply to them and would give them access to international organisations.
"The marines who surrendered to the DNR [the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic - ed.] are held in colonies which no-one is allowed to access. It’s frightening to even imagine what’s happening to them there. And unlike the captured marines, whom no one knows anything about, we have a complete list of the people who got out from Azovstal verified by a Russian general," a source from the Chief Intelligence Directorate said.
"Everyone who got out of Azovstal is currently in Olenivka [in a pre-trial detention centre in a town near Donetsk - ed.]. There are 2,449 of our people there," another intelligence source added.
Overall, the agreements with Russia ended up being concrete and straightforward: the Ukrainian soldiers must remain alive, there would be no torture, those who got out from Azovstal would be held all together and separately from other prisoners, and preparations for a prisoner exchange would begin.
There were some unexpected details, too, like a provision for the Ukrainian soldiers to keep one Starlink internet device in order to be able to communicate with their families and the Ukrainian government.
"We agreed that the soldiers – the rank and file as well as the officers – would be able to stay together, even though they would normally have to be interned separately. Their own doctors would be able to assess the soldiers’ condition, their own cooks – those who remained – could cook for them using whatever they have access to. They will all remain together. We called this ‘An Island of Hope’," an intelligence source summed up.
However, the wife of Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko said in an interview for Ukrainska Pravda that international organisations currently have no access to the Azovstal defenders: "We know that the pre-trial detention centre is overcrowded, obviously there might be a lack of certain things. As before, food, water – all of it has to be improved. Right now, we want to address this issue as soon as possible, we want the Red Cross to mobilise as many of their connections as possible…
There is information that they were present only during the beginning of the evacuation. I’m still trying to figure this out, I don’t have an answer yet."
A source from Zelenskyy’s inner circle admitted that the reality turned out to be worse that what had been laid out in agreements, but not worse than life under constant bombings:
"Obviously, their Starlink was immediately confiscated, the conditions in which they are held are not great, but we maintain contact with our people there and they are saying that at least they are not being tortured. They have some medicines, and so on.
Next, we have to prepare for a prisoner exchange. Our task right now is to collect all of the dead from Azovstal. We don’t want to surrender even our dead to them."
Roman Romaniuk, Ukrainska Pravda