Describing their increasingly grim, and likely ultimately hopeless, circumstances, Illia Samoilenko also made clear his bitterness with the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. It had, he said, failed in its defense of southern Ukraine, where Russia made much faster progress than in the north, and had abandoned Mariupol’s garrison to its fate.
“Surrender is not an option because Russia is not interested in our lives,” said Samoilenko, arguing that Moscow could not allow them to live because of war crimes they had witnessed. “We are basically here dead men. Most of us know this and it’s why we fight so fearlessly.”
Speaking after the Zoom briefing, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said “every presidential conversation with foreign leaders and international organizations starts and ends with Azovstal.”
Mariupol’s defense has been hard contested, in part because the city is critical to Russia’s ability to supply the reconstruction of the eastern Donbas region it’s now fighting to secure, and to establish a land corridor between the Russian mainland and Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The city has largely been leveled by shelling during the siege, with civilians struggling for access to food, electricity and water, and the last holdouts of Ukrainian defense are now at the steel plant. All of the women and children who were huddled in bunkers at the site for weeks have been evacuated.
On Sunday, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional development Marat Khusnullin said on his Telegram channel he had just visited Mariupol and other recently “liberated” areas of eastern Ukraine. “Restoration of peaceful life begins in the regions. There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Moscow is making preparations for its annual military parade on Monday to mark its victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, with some sort of parade also expected in Mariupol.
Samoilenko said aerial and artillery bombardment of Azovstal continued on Sunday and had escalated since the civilians were evacuated. He also said Russian forces were sending in small groups of around 100 ground troops to try and seize the plant.
“We are ready,” Samoilenko said, when asked if fighting had begun in the tunnels. At the same time, he proposed a military rescue he acknowledged would take months to execute against well-established Russian defenses. He called on nations to stop being afraid of Russia and devise a way to ensure the regiment’s safe evacuation to Ukrainian-held territory.
He also added to a brutal, emerging picture of life in the maze of Azovstal’s tunnels and underground shelters.
Samoilenko described digging civilians out of some bunkers that collapsed under Russian bombing, as well as wounded soldiers succumbing to pneumonia and other illnesses caused by dust and dirt in the plant’s makeshift underground field hospital.
The Azov regiment, a volunteer militia merged into Ukraine’s National Guard that still wears the Medieval Wolfsangel insignia — made infamous by Nazi German SS units — has been a propaganda boon for Putin’s claims to be “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Those are likely to be repeated at Moscow’s parade on Monday.
As was clear from a fast scrolling chat accompanying a YouTube feed of the Azov Zoom call that at one point had at least 35,000 watchers, many Ukrainians now consider the regiment heroes for their dogged defense of Mariupol.
Steel worker Serhiy Kuzmenko, who was in one of the last groups of civilians to be evacuated from the plant, agrees.
“Without their help and their food we would not have been able to survive,” Kuzmenko said on Saturday. At first the Azov troops brought occasional food supplies and diapers for kids, some as young as a year old. Kuzmenko’s daughter is eight. But after their own food ran out at the end of March, deliveries from the soldiers became systematic.
“Every three to four days they were bringing us food — porridge, pasta,” Kuzmenko said by Zoom. “We did not have a generator, so they were bringing us charged batteries.”
Cooking the one meal a day spread among the 70 people sharing Kuzmenko’s bunker was done in buckets, he said. On some days the explosions above would scatter pieces of wall plaster, dust and glass into the food.
Even without the shelling, the environment underground was unhealthy and Kuzmenko, 31, now fears for his daughter’s lungs. Humidity and poor ventilation in the crowded bunkers created mold. He recalled hanging a jacket only to find it covered in spores two days later.
Kuzmenko — who worked at Azovstal for a decade, where he oversaw equipment at a facility turning cast iron into steel — described the plant as a network of tunnels and 36 underground shelters. When he eventually left with his wife and child, it took two days before they reached Ukraine-held territory in Zaporizhzhia, as they were first interrogated in filtration camps.
“We were interrogated — we were asked what we saw, whom we talked to, whom we know, where Ukrainian soldiers are,” Kuzmenko said. “Every person was interrogated like for 1.5 hours by different Russians.”
His group included two sisters, one of them a 22-year-old policewoman. When the Russian interrogators found that out, she was not seen again. “We have no idea about her fate,” Kuzmenko said.
For the soldiers left at Azovstal, options seem to be narrowing. Asked what kind of rescue mission he’d like to see, Samoilenko said a few Ukrainian brigades should open an advance from Zaporizhzhia, more than 200 km (124 miles) from Mariupol, right away. That’s even as he acknowledged it would take months to get through well prepared Russian defenses.
That’s why, Samoilenko said, the regiment is banking on a political agreement to extract them. He called on outside countries to step in and find a way.
“It’s not so hard to stop being afraid of Russia,” Samoilenko said. “It’s really just stand and fight, stand and fight.”