In the end, the battle for the Ukrainian city of Mariupol came down to a showdown over a single big industrial plant. Now, it looks like the fight over Sievierodonetsk in Ukraine’s east might go the same way.
Bunkers beneath Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works, a giant factory complex whose hulking chimneys dominated the city’s skyline, offered Ukrainian fighters and civilians a place to hide out — under harrowing conditions — for weeks after the rest of the city had fallen to Russian forces.
The bunkers at the Azot Chemical Association factory in Sievierodonetsk, an industrial city on the banks of the Siversky Donets River, appear to be playing a similar role. As the city is pounded by Russian forces trying to take the last parts of Luhansk Province that have defied their grasp, fighters at the plant, just a few blocks from the river, have held out.
Hundreds of civilians are trapped at the plant and a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Saviano Abreu, said that “people are suffering and experiencing constant shelling and bombardment.”
Dmytro Firtash, whose company, Group DF, owns the plant, said in a statement this month that among the civilians were employees who had stayed to safeguard “what is left of the plant’s highly explosive chemicals.”
After an artillery bombardment that lasted weeks, Russian forces have advanced into the city. The block-by-block fighting has ebbed and flowed, according to Ukrainian officials, and the precise number of Ukrainian fighters who remain and how much of the city they control is unclear.
The plant is a collection of long, low buildings occupying several blocks in the western part of the city, with two towering chimneys and several smaller ones. Chemicals are a staple of the country’s industrial output, and before the war, the plant was a major producer of ammonia, urea and ammonium nitrate.
Ukrainian officials release daily images of the latest damage to the shattered city. Most civilians have already left.
For those holding out, resupply of ammunition, food, water and medical supplies is crucial. After Mariupol fell in early May, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine saluted the bravery of helicopter pilots who died trying to resupply the steel works. In the case of Sievierodonetsk, bridges connecting the city of Lysyschansk on the western bank of the river had been crucial for resupply and evacuation, but Ukrainian officials on Tuesday said the last bridge had been destroyed.
“Russian forces are continuing to fight for control of the Azot industrial plant and have destroyed all bridges between Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, likely to isolate the remaining Ukrainian defenders within the city from critical lines of communication,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said a report on Wednesday.