Mariupol, which has been under siege for months, is a strategically important target for the Russians. Now they report the “complete liberation” of the last remaining fighters. What does that mean for the course of the war?

After weeks of bloody fighting, the Azovstal steelworks in the Ukrainian port of Mariupol is under Russian control, according to information from Moscow.

All of the fighters surrendered, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in Moscow on Friday evening. A total of 2,439 Ukrainian soldiers have been taken prisoner by the Russians since May 16. The plant was the last piece of the strategically important city in south-eastern Ukraine that had not yet been completely under Russian control.

Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu himself reported to President Vladimir Putin about the “complete liberation of the plant and the city of Mariupol,” Konashenkov said. The deployment of Russian soldiers has now been completed. Initially, there was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.

Months of siege

Russian troops had already begun the siege of Mariupol shortly after invading Ukraine at the end of February. Pictures of a destroyed maternity clinic went around the world. For weeks, civilians held out in cellars, and there was even a lack of drinking water in the embattled city. Only after many failed attempts were civilians evacuated from the city. Most recently, the Russian attacks were concentrated on the steelworks, in whose extensive cellars the last defenders of the city were holed up.

According to the ministry, the last group of 531 militants in captivity arrived on Friday, the ministry statement said. The industrial zone had been blocked by Russian troops since April 21. The commander of the Azov regiment was taken away in a special armored vehicle.

Hours earlier, the remaining Ukrainian defenders of the steelworks on the Sea of ​​Azov had announced for the first time that their army command had ordered them to stop defending the city. This was stated by the commander of the controversial national guard regiment “Azov”, Denys Prokopenko. This should protect the life and health of the soldiers in the garrison.

On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – in a television interview recorded before the Russian announcement of the capture – held the West partly responsible for the Ukrainians’ withdrawal from the plant. He has repeatedly called on Western heads of state and government to provide his country with “appropriate weapons” – “so that we can reach Mariupol to liberate these people”.

First capitulations earlier in the week

The first 264 soldiers surrendered on Monday, including more than 50 seriously injured. According to Russian information, more were taken into captivity on Thursday. The commanders and some fighters had held the position until the end. Altogether it was always assumed that there were around 2,500 Ukrainian fighters in Moscow. The government in Kyiv, on the other hand, had given the number as only 1,000.

Until recently, the Ukrainian leadership also spoke of a “rescue operation” instead of a capitulation and held out the prospect of an early exchange of prisoners with Russia. The Azov fighters had repeatedly asked for help from the Ukrainian armed forces. Russia has been waging a war of aggression against its Ukrainian neighbor for almost three months.

With Mariupol, the Russian forces now control the entire coast of the Sea of ​​Azov. This would allow the separatist republics of Luhansk and Donzek, recognized by Russia, to remain formally independent. With Mariupol you have access to the world’s oceans. They can now export their production independently of Russian land routes via the well-developed largest port on the Azov Sea using the inexpensive waterway.

The overland route from Mariupol to the Crimean Peninsula, which has been annexed by Russia since 2014, is also a subject of much discussion. However, the road links are unlikely to be of any interest to Russia because of their poor condition. Rather, the railway connections running further north via the city of Volnowacha, recently conquered by Russian troops, towards Melitopol, which has been under Russian control since the end of February, and from there to the Crimea, are also considered important in a military sense.

persistent resistance

Above all, Mariupol also has great symbolic importance for the “Azov” National Guard Regiment, which was founded by neo-Nazis and nationalists and is still dominated by them today. According to the founding myth of the unit, the unit, which was founded by volunteers in early May 2014, liberated the port city, which was then controlled by pro-Russian separatists, less than a month later. In the weeks of battle over the city, Ukrainians have repeatedly emphasized that if Mariupol is saved, then Ukraine will be saved.

“Azov” had previously lost its base in the neighboring port city of Berdyansk. Since Mariupol has now also fallen, this is regarded as a defeat for the core of the unit that was fought particularly hard by the Russian troops. Russia is celebrating this as a major partial victory in its war of aggression against Ukraine.

Persistent resistance to the Russian invasion in Mariupol long ensured that, according to Ukrainian sources, a Russian group of around 14,000 soldiers with heavy equipment was tied down. With the fall of the port city, it now becomes free. The soldiers could bring the decisive advantage for the long-awaited Russian offensive towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.