“This is not a martyr city. It is a fighter city. And we are not in the past, we are in the present, you understand?”
That was the defiant message Syatoslav Palamar, a captain in Ukraine’s Azov regiment, issued from inside Mariupol yesterday.
“While we are here, Mariupol continues to be Ukrainian,” he concluded from an underground bunker.
Last night, the Azov regiment said that Russian forces appeared to have used chemical weapons.
“Russian occupation forces used a poisonous substance of unknown origin against Ukrainian military and civilians in the city of Mariupol, which was dropped from an enemy drone.
“The victims have respiratory failure... the effects of the unknown substance are being clarified.”
The claim could not immediately be verified but it came after Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told Russian state television that the Kremlin’s forces might resort to chemical weapons to finish the job.
The imminent fall of Mariupol has been predicted for weeks, and the survival of its defenders is one of the constant surprises of the war.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed there, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said yesterday. And he made clear that it could be the most important battle of the war.
“Mariupol is the heart of this war today. It is beating. We’re fighting. We’re strong. And if it stops beating, we will be in a weaker position,” he said. “They are people who are distracting a big part of the enemy forces. The stronger our position in Mariupol, the stronger our position in the east of the country will be. And if they are stronger, the negotiation table will be closer and we will have advantages in the dialogue.”
If Mariupol falls, and the looming battle for the east goes badly, he warned, Russia would seek to press its advantage and continue the war.
“If and when it does fall, then those forces engaged there are free to attack north to attempt to join up with those forces that are attacking south from Izyum,” said a Western official. “The Ukrainians are now going to face effectively a pincer move.”
The official said Russia would be looking to “double or triple” its forces in Donbas before attempting that operation, and that it “is going to take some considerable time to bring them up to that sort of number”.
In 2014 and 2015, small numbers of Ukrainian troops battled for months to hold on to the wreckage of Donetsk airport against impossible odds. They became a symbol of heroism and defiance, but the fight ended in inevitable and painful defeat.
Will Mariupol end the same way? The siege began on March 3, when Russian spearheads from Crimea and Donbas met and completed an encirclement of the port city. Although there are rumours of secret supply routes, reinforcement has been effectively impossible ever since.
The Russians quickly targeted essential utilities including water and electricity to make life impossible for both the defenders and the 400,000 or more civilians trapped in the city.
They also destroyed communications infra- structure.
For the first three weeks, two Associated Press journalists, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, continued to work under shell fire, sending pictures and words when they could still get a signal. They documented the Russian airstrike that destroyed a maternity hospital, but had to leave when they were warned the Russians were hunting them.
Since then, we have had to rely on infrequent updates from the city council and the harrowing testimony of the civilians who very occasionally make it to safety along a “green corridor”. The stories, however, are consistent: no water, no food, no heating, no medicine. Intense fighting, total destruction of neighbourhoods, and bodies lying in the street.
Russian infantry and armour backed by the unrestricted use of artillery and airstrikes have moved block to block in a vicious street-to-street, house-to-house fight with a few thousand Ukrainian marines, border guards and Azov regiment fighters.
Capt Palamar in his video described a battle of desperate odds, with casualties so high subalterns have found themselves in command of battalions, officers killing themselves with grenades, and a constant lack of drinking water.
“Have you thought about how it is to be here, to fight in such conditions?” he asked. “It’s when they text you, ‘How are you, buddy?’ when five minutes ago you put down a black bag with a brother you knew for seven years.”
Yet the defence has been tenacious and resourceful, making use of ambush and better knowledge of the city.
“The fall of Mariupol has been long predicted by many and the forces there continue to fight extremely bravely,” a Western official said yesterday.
Nonetheless, the defenders above ground have been pushed back, street by street.
The Ukrainians are now believed to be confined to a number of isolated pockets, the largest of which centres on the Azovstal iron and steel works. Yesterday, the Facebook page of Ukraine’s 36th Marines posted a letter saying it was nearly out of ammunition and that it anticipated the “final battle”.
“From now on, it is hand-to-hand combat, then death for some of us and captivity for others,” it said in a letter that was more downbeat in tone than Capt Palamar’s video.
But Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to the Mariupol mayor, said on social media that the marines’ page had been hacked and the post was fake. A maze of gantries, chimneys and pipes that covers hundreds of acres, and bound by the sea to the south and the Kalmius River to the west and north, Azovstal is a formidable citadel.
And even Russian sources appear to acknowledge how effective the Soviet-built factory is as a redoubt.
As of yesterday, Western and Ukrainian officials insisted the battle was not over.
The Ukrainians, and particularly Azov’s slick media operation, are still posting footage of their successes, to tell the world that they are still fighting.
As recently as Friday, they released footage of a soldier firing an anti-tank missile at an armoured vehicle from the roof of a building.
Yesterday, they published fresh footage purporting to show a mortar strike on Russian vehicles in the courtyard of a bombed-out apartment building. There is no shortage of similar footage claiming success on pro-Russian media, however.
It is clear the Russians are making progress. But that is a prediction the defenders will seek to once again defy. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)