The reason why Ukrainian soldiers can hold out in the underground fortress Azovstal

Iron and steel factories like Azovstal were built during the Soviet era, which always stored necessities in underground tunnels, which helped the defense forces to last for a long time.

The Azovstal Iron and Steel Works is the last point of resistance for Ukrainian forces in the south-eastern city of Mariupol. The bunker system beneath the factory has become a permanent location for members of the Azov Battalion of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry since the siege by Russian forces in early March.

To learn more about the structure of the underground tunnel under the Azovstal Plant, AFP reporters recently visited the Zaporizhstal Plant in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, believed to be the “sister” plant of the Mariupol Plant.

Both factories were designed and built by the Soviets in the 1930s, when the world was struggling to recover from World War I and geopolitical tensions were on the verge of erupting. With the mentality of preparing for war, Soviet engineers built a system of bunkers below the factories to house thousands of workers in an emergency.

These factories always stock plenty of food, running water, generators, blankets, and even wood-burning stoves in bunkers deep underground.

In an underground bunker at the Zaporizhstal Steel Plant in the city of Zaporizhia in southern Ukraine.  Photo: AFP.

Inside an underground bunker at the Zaporizhstal Iron and Steel Works in the city of Zaporizhia in southern Ukraine. Picture: AFP.

“We can stay in the bunker system for a long time,” said Ihor Buhlayev, 20, a worker at the Zaporizhstal factory. “I think it’s something that can give us a chance to survive.”

The city of Zaporizhia in southern Ukraine was not attacked by Russian forces during the special military operation, but the Zaporizhstal factory was forced to close due to the threat of widespread hostilities.

A total of 16 bunkers and a network of tunnels were built at the Zaporizhstal Iron and Steel Works. Above the underground bunker is an area of ​​about 5.5 square kilometers, about half the size of the Azovstal factory, with plenty of hiding places between the rows of houses. When fighting breaks out, the factory’s tall towers can also serve as useful observation posts.

Both assets are owned by Metinvest Holding, a steel mining and manufacturing giant headed by Ukraine’s richest billionaire Rinat Akhmetov. The bunker, which is about 10 meters underground, is protected by an explosion-proof steel door 10 centimeters thick. The deck is fully lighted, with rows of wooden benches and can accommodate up to 600 people.

Within the bunker, mineral water and emergency food are stored in a separate store. Large water tanks can be used to flush toilets in the basement. The pile of firewood was stacked up to chest height.

Location of the Azovstal metallurgical plant in the city of Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine.  Graphics: Guardian.

Location of the Azovstal metallurgical plant in the city of Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine. Graphic: Guardian.

The bunker below the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works has a similar structure. The factory is located in the east of the port city in the industrial zone facing the Azov Sea, covering an area of ​​more than 11 square kilometers, including many large buildings, blast furnaces and internal railroad tracks.

All women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from the factory, according to Ukrainian officials, but at least 100 civilians and more than 1,000 soldiers from the Azov Battalion are still underground.

“Under one city is another,” said Yan Gagin, an adviser to the self-proclaimed government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, describing the network of tunnels that criss-cross the Azovstal plant.

Gagin said the Azovstal facility is designed to withstand all types of air strikes and shelling. Azovstal also has an internal communication system that gives defenders a huge advantage even when they are outnumbered.

Russian forces have so far been unable to attack the Azovstal factory after more than two months of siege, although they controlled most of the city of Mariupol. With the city’s fall, Ukraine lost a key seaport, while Russia gained access to the land corridor connecting the Crimean Peninsula.

“God didn’t leave us in the same situation as our colleagues at Azovstal who were there for so long,” said Alexander Lotenkov, head of communications at the Zaporizhstal plant. “Nobody deserves this.”

The military situation in Ukraine after 11 weeks of fighting.  Graphic: Washington Post.

The military situation in Ukraine after 11 weeks of fighting. Graphic: Washington Post.

Duc Trung (Corresponding AFP)