KYIV, Ukraine — After weeks of shelling and bombings, the Russian siege of the critical Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has culminated in a last stand by a few thousand Ukrainian troops, holed up in a sprawling, smoldering steel plant that backs up to the sea.
Russia had given the Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol until Sunday morning to lay down their weapons or be “eliminated.” On Sunday, the forces at the plant ignored the deadline, and Ukrainian officials vowed that they would not surrender. In response, the Russian assault intensified, with missiles and bombs hitting the city and new attacks occurring near the plant, according to the Ukrainian military.
The showdown at the Azovstal steel plant, near Mariupol’s port, has become the last line of Ukraine’s defense in preventing Russia from securing a strategically important land bridge between its stronghold in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, which Russia has been struggling to control. Capturing Mariupol would be a major victory for Russia that could strengthen its push to command Ukraine’s east, cut off an important Ukrainian port and bolster flagging morale among Russian troops.
But Ukrainian officials said on Sunday that the struggle was not over for Mariupol, which for two months has tied up Russian troops and resources that are badly needed elsewhere.
“The city still has not fallen,” Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister, told ABC News on Sunday. “There is still our military forces. So they will fight to the end, and as for now, they are still in Mariupol.”
Taking Mariupol would be one of the first major victories for Russia over the past several weeks, a period in which it withdrew from the area around Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and lost one of its most important warships, the Moskva.
The Moskva’s sinking drew fierce reaction in some corners of the Russian news media, which called for harsh retaliation. Russia has recently shifted its focus to eastern Ukraine, and on Sunday, it continued to unleash missiles into Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city after Kyiv, in the country’s northeast.
In Mariupol, in the southeast, it was unclear how many Ukrainian troops were still fighting. Russian officials said there were 2,500 soldiers aligned with Ukraine at the steel plant, including “400 foreign mercenaries.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told news outlets on Saturday that getting accurate numbers out of Mariupol had been difficult, because “many people have disappeared.” But he said that Ukrainian officials believe Russian troops outnumber the Ukrainian forces in the city by six to one.
One of the groups leading the defense of Mariupol is the Azov Battalion, a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard that has drawn far-right fighters from around the world. Moscow has used the presence of far-right movements in Ukraine as a pretext for invading the country. Russian troops also include many far-right fighters.
Mr. Zelensky said that Ukrainian officials were speaking with the soldiers at the steel plant several times a day. “We support them as much as we can,” he said. “But they know that they are carrying out one of the most powerful and important missions today.”
Azovstal Iron and Steel Works is one of the world’s largest metallurgical factories and is run by Metinvest, a steel and mining conglomerate owned by the billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. The plant, stretched over more than four square miles, is a maze of rail tracks, blast furnaces and industrial mills. A military official aligned with Russian forces has called the plant a “fortress in the city,” according to Reuters.
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Michael Schwirtz reported from Kyiv; Jack Nicas from Rio de Janeiro; and Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul. Reporting was contributed by Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine; Cora Engelbrecht from Warsaw; Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkiv, Ukraine; and Eduardo Medina from New York.
A satellite image showing the sprawling Azovstal steel factory, where a few thousand Ukrainian soldiers are holding out against Russian forces.Credit...Maxar Technologies, via Associated Press