As soldiers and civilians trapped in bunkers beneath a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, issued desperate pleas for help Friday, military analysts said it might take days or even weeks for the heavily battered Russian forces who now control most of the city to regroup and join Moscow’s offensive in the eastern Donbas region.
The Kremlin on Thursday declared “victory” in the now-ruined city, even though Ukrainian forces still held the Azovstal steel plant near Mariupol’s port. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces not to storm the plant but rather to block it “so that a fly cannot not pass through.”
A final assault on the plant would have almost surely resulted in further casualties for Russia in a campaign that military analysts and Ukrainian officials say has already taken a heavy toll.
Mariupol, a strategic port city, was targeted on the first day of Russia’s invasion two months ago. It has been surrounded by Russian forces for about 50 days and been the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the war.
Although the defenders of the city are now confined to the steel plant, Ukrainians and western military analysts said that in weeks of fighting, they killed high-ranking Russian soldiers and many members of elite Russian fighting units.
Even as the city around them was reduced to rubble, Ukrainian soldiers continued to ambush and attack Russians entering the city. It is impossible to know exactly how many Russian soldiers were killed in the battle, but the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said they suffered “high casualties.”
“Russian forces involved in the battle of Mariupol are likely heavily damaged and Ukrainian forces succeeded in tying down and degrading a substantial Russian force,” according to the group’s analysis.
The British military defense intelligence agency said Friday that the decision to blockade the Azovstal plant “likely indicates a desire to contain Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol and free up Russian forces to be deployed elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.”
Western military officials estimate that there were about 12 Russian battalion tactical groups in the city at the start of the week. At full strength, the battalions consist of between 700 and 1,000 soldiers. It is highly unlikely the Russian battalions who fought in the city remain at full strength, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
Some portion of the Russian forces will be needed for missions outside the eastern offensive.
The raging fight in Mariupol has left an estimated 95% of the structures in the city destroyed or so damaged that they will probably need to be torn down, and Russia will need soldiers to secure the ruins and clear out any remaining pockets of resistance. Other soldiers might be needed to maintain control of southern Ukraine.
And despite the Kremlin’s claim of victory, the Russians must now maintain their siege of the steel plant.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Friday that the Russian army had made it clear that they would not let civilians leave the plant unless the soldiers inside surrender first. She estimated that about 1,000 civilians, many of them “women, children and the elderly,” were still inside the plant. Although Russia opened a corridor for soldiers to surrender, she said, it has not guaranteed safe passage out for civilians.
“The Russians refuse to open a corridor for civilians, cynically pretending that they do not understand the difference between a corridor for the military to surrender and a humanitarian corridor to evacuate the civilians,” she wrote on Telegram. “But they do understand it all. It’s just that they are trying to lay extra pressure on our military.”