Cut off from supplies and under siege, a senior leader of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment says his unit will fight to the “last bullet” as Russian forces continue to assault Ukraine’s final holdout in Mariupol.
“The enemy has a complete advantage in aviation and naval artillery,” Azov Regiment Chief of Staff Maj. Bohdan Krotevych told The Washington Times. “Our secret is very simple: we clearly understand that we are defending our homeland. We swore an oath to the Ukrainian people, and we will defend our state to the last bullet.”
After months of stops and starts amid heavy Russian bombardment of the strategic port city, Ukrainian officials announced over the weekend that all remaining women, children and elderly civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant’s network of underground bunkers, where they had been holed up since Russia invaded in February.
But Maj. Krotevych, who spoke with The Washington Times late Monday over the Telegram messaging application, said his unit is still there fighting. The unit has been concealed in the steel plant for two months — sleeping underground as Russia launched its barrage from the air and sea — and emerging amid the onslaught to man a network of firing positions on the surface.
“First they destroyed the positions with all-night artillery and aircraft [strikes], after which the enemy stormed them with infantry and tanks,” he said.
He said slightly more than 2,000 Azov fighters and support personnel remain dug in at the facility, surrounded by Russian troops.
The steel mill has served as the Azov Regiment’s command post for the region since the start of the war, Maj. Krotevych said. Azov fighters gathered food and supplies from other bases, planning to use the sprawling fortress for a strategic fallback as Russia advanced.
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But he said the unit did not expect to be surrounded for months, cut off from additional supplies and without support from other Ukrainian units.
“For the third month in a row, the Azov Regiment has been fighting defensive battles without sleep and rest, without the support of artillery,” he said. “We planned the defense from the very beginning so that we could roll back to the factory. Unfortunately of course we did not expect that the senior [leaders] will not support us, and we will be surrounded for more than two months.”
“I don’t know how much longer we will last,” he said. “Sometimes we wonder to ourselves.”
Maj. Krotevych said all of the food and medicine that was brought into the city by international aid organizations was taken by the Russians. He said fighters are still relying on the food they brought into the factory at the beginning of the war, and the industrial water that is still supplied to the plant, which the fighters boil before they drink.
And the Russian assault on the steel plant shows no signs of letting up. Azov fighters reported 25 Russian sorties over the facility on Saturday night, after Ukraine claimed to have evacuated the last remaining civilians. Russian artillery and mortars continue to bombard the plant, according to the fighters, and they say they are continuing to repel infantry attempts to storm the holdout.
Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, the regiment’s deputy commander, said in a rare press conference from the bunker on Sunday that the area surrounding the plant remains littered with dead soldiers and civilians.
Azov leadership has repeatedly called on the international community and Ukrainian officials to evacuate wounded fighters.
“People are suffering and some are dying because they can’t get all the necessary medical care,” Capt. Palamar said. “We are shouting for help.”
“We don’t have much time, we are coming under intense shelling,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address Saturday that he is “working on diplomatic options to save our troops who are still at Azovstal.”
Despite the dire circumstances, the regiment’s intelligence officer, Lt. Illia Samoilenko said in his address alongside Capt. Palamar that Azov fighters have killed 2,500 Russians in Mariupol and wounded another 5,000.
Maj. Krotevych told The Times that because of the Azov Regiment’s resistance waged from the steel plant, the Russians have been forced to maintain a sizable presence in Mariupol rather than commit additional fighters to nearby cities.
“If the enemy aircraft had not worked, we would have repulsed [the Russians] to the edge of the city,” Maj. Krotevych said.
And the fighters say they have no intention of giving up.
“For me, every man must go defend his homeland,” said Maj. Krotevych, who is from Crimea and joined the Azov Regiment after Russia annexed his hometown in 2014. “I would like the world to understand that Russia is a terrorist country. Terrorists must be neutralized.”