Inside the Azovstal steelworks: The sprawling underground city standing between Vladimir Putin and the fall of Mariupol

Russia has its eyes on the vast complex to seal a propaganda victory, but the Ukrainians are not giving it up without a fight

The Azovstal factory has been described as a ‘city under a city’ because of its vast network of underground shelters and tunnels

Eight years ago, thousands of Azovstal steelworkers rose up to kick pro-Russian separatists out of Mariupol, giving Moscow and Vladimir Putin another bloody nose in the wake of Ukraine’s revolution.

Now the steel complex is the last refuge for those defending the city hit the hardest by Russia’s bombing campaign as Moscow seeks a propaganda victory in its chaotic war with Ukraine.

The Azovstal factory, a sprawling Soviet-era industrial complex, has been described as a “city under a city” because of its vast network of underground shelters and tunnels.

It covers roughly four square miles and from a distance looks like a sleeping dragon – a mass of tall chimneys, huge industrial buildings and blast furnaces.

At least a thousand civilians are hiding there as Russian forces begin their final assault on the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol. Western officials fear that the onslaught will be “worse than Bucha”, referring to the war crimes carried out by Russian forces in the Kyiv suburb.

The Azovstal plant was rebuilt by the Soviets after the Nazi occupation all but destroyed it, with a focus on creating bomb shelters so deep that they could potentially withstand a nuclear assault.

“You’d be surprised at how well people can survive big bombs in a facility like that,” Frederick W Kagan, the director of the critical threats programme at the American Enterprise Institute, told The New York Times in a recent interview.

Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, who back the invasion, are now complaining that this ingenuity is what has made it so difficult to capture. 

“It is basically a city under a city,” Yan Gagin, an adviser to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a recent interview with Russian state media.

Wartime drone footage of the plant offers some clues as to why its capture is proving to be such a struggle for Russian forces. A bridge connecting to the plant has been destroyed, whilst the road itself is littered with the wreckage of cars.

The heavily built-up area is filled with dozens of industrial buildings which could serve as points for Ukrainian forces to launch ambushes against invaders.

However, the same footage also shows that the plant has suffered devastating attacks from the Russians, many of those buildings have been destroyed by artillery and airstrikes, and much of the ground is strewn with debris.

Analysts said, however, that the vast network of tunnels underneath the factory would be a nightmare for invading forces. 

“They can try, but they’ll be slaughtered because the defenders of the tunnel will absolutely have the tactical upper hand,” Alexander Grinberg, an analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, warned last week.

The Russian military has centred much of its firepower on Mariupol over the past month, and has been met with fierce resistance from Ukrainian fighters, including their marines and the controversial Azov regiment, which has links to the far-Right.

Ukrainian officials said that Russia is resorting to “bunker-busting” bombs, which are often used on military facilities deep underground, to target the defenders of the plant.

The looming, final battle between the steel plants’ defenders and the Russians has drawn comparisons to the Second World War-era defence of the Stalingrad Tractor Factory. Thousands of German and Soviet soldiers were killed during the Nazis’ attempt to take over that complex, which eventually succeeded, as part of the Battle of Stalingrad.

After the anti-Russian Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in February 2014, steelworkers at the plant launched joint patrols of the city and removed barriers imposed by violent pro-Russian separatist demonstrators.

Dressed only in their protective clothing and hard hats, the labourers, who were working alongside Ukraine's police force, sent a strong signal that they had no interest in allowing their city to be taken over by supporters of Vladimir Putin. 

Seizing Azovstal, and taking over Mariupol, would be a significant military victory for Moscow, as it would create a land bridge between annexed Crimea and the eastern Donbas region.

Western officials suspect that Moscow has stepped up efforts to capture Mariupol in time for May 9 – Victory Day in Russia – so it can be sold as a timely victory for Putin’s military campaign.

Russia has claimed that Mariupol harbours “Nazis”, a reference to the presence of the Azov batallion in Mariupol, even though there is negligible support for the extreme Right in Ukraine. In elections in 2019, Ukraine’s far-Right bloc garnered just two per cent of the vote.

However, a total defeat of Mariupol could be presented by Moscow as a symbolic victory as part of its dubious campaign to “de-Nazifiy” the country.

“We do expect the complete destruction of the city [of Mariupol] and many civilian casualties,” a European official told Politico in a recent briefing. 

“My fear is that it is going to be worse than Bucha.” 

If Azovstal is overrun by Russian soldiers in the coming days, as the West fears, it is unclear what its fate will be.

It may potentially be the scene of a Russian “victory” parade as soon as May 9. But in any case, it will remain a grim symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.