Briefing

A timeline of how the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol fell

Ukraine's soldiers are 'beating incredible odds' — even when they lose

After three months of bombing, missile strikes, and street combat, Russian President Vladimir Putin has won control of what's left of Mariupol, Ukraine's second-largest port. Ukrainian forces made their last stand in the massive Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, a four-square-mile fortress of industrial buildings and a deep network of tunnels connecting 36 bomb shelters designed to survive nuclear blasts. Now, most of those forces have been evacuated to Russian-controlled territory or they are dead. 

"Russia can take what's left of the city. But, wow, has it lost the narrative," says Olga Oliker at the International Crisis Group. "On the Ukrainian side, you have these tales of heroism and self-sacrifice," while "on the Russian side, all you've got is 'we kept pummeling and pummeling and pummeling and pummeling.'" 

"Putin will be able to capitalize on this success until Russian forces face their next major setback, after which Azovstal will be a distant memory for most Russians," Jamestown Foundation president Glen Howard tells Radio Free Europe. "But for Ukrainians, the memory of the siege of Mariupol will serve as a rallying cry for generations to come."

Here's how the story played out.

Thursday, Feb. 24

Russian and allied forces invade Ukraine, and one of their first targets is Mariupol, a key Ukrainian port city on the Sea of Azov.

Wednesday, March 9

Russian missiles strike the maternity ward of Mariupol's hospital, in one of Moscow's first large-scale attacks on hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.

Wednesday, March 16

Russia bombs Mariupol's landmark theater, killing about 600 people sheltering there, even though "Children" was written in Russian in large letters outside the building. 

Sunday, April 10

Russian and allied forces gain control of most of Mariupol, splitting the Ukrainian fighters into two areas: the port in the city's southwest and the Azovstal steel plant in the east.

Wednesday, April 13

Fighters with Ukraine's 36th Marine Brigade break through their encirclement at Mariupol's Ilyich metal plant and join up with the Azov Battalion and other national guard units at Azovstal. Hundreds of civilians are sheltering in the underground bunkers. 

Tuesday, April 19

Russia orders the Ukrainian fighters in the Azovstal plant to surrender within 24 hours. They decline.

Thursday, April 21: 

Putin declares Mariupol "liberated" from Ukraine, orders Russian forces to seal off Azovstal but not attack.

Tuesday, April 26

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres meets with Putin in Moscow, secures agreement "in principle" to evacuate civilians from the Azovstal plant.

Wednesday, April 27: 

Russia steps up bombing and shelling for 48 hours, collapsing an underground field hospital and crushing injured fighters and civilians, according to Ukrainian fighters.

Monday, April 30

Evacuation of civilians from Azovstal begins, under deal reached between Ukraine, Russia, the U.N., and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Saturday, May 7

All civilian women and children are out of Azovstal, transported either to Russian-held areas or the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia. 

Wednesday, May 11

A group of wives and girlfriends of Azovstal fighters meet with Pope Francis and ask him to intercede to "save their lives."

Monday, May 16

The first 264 Ukrainian fighters are evacuated from Azovstal and transported to hospitals or detention camps in Russian-controlled Ukraine. Ukraine declares its Mariupol "combat mission" complete, tells remaining fighters to surrender. "Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

Wednesday, May 18

Denis Pusilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, says "the Azovstal plant, or rather, what remains of it, will be demolished," and Mariupol will be turned into a resort city. "Azovstal was a major element of Mariupol's economy before the war," the Institute for the Study of War notes. Razing it to build a resort city "epitomizes the kind of Pyrrhic victories Russian forces have won in Ukraine, to the extent that they have won victories at all."

Thursday, May 19

Russia says 1,730 fighters have been evacuated from Azovstal and taken to Russian-held areas. The ICRC says it has registered hundreds of the fighters as prisoners of war, granting them basic rights under the Geneva Conventions. An unknown number of Ukrainian fighters remain inside the plant, and some say they won't surrender.

"There's some real gains for Russia here, but if you look at this from the Ukrainian perspective, Mariupol has really become a symbol — and the steel plant in particular, and the defenders inside of it — have become this symbol of Ukrainian resistance that I think is going to be a defining feature of this war," Michael Schwirtz reports on The New York Times' Daily podcast. "Up and down the line, you have these examples of Ukrainian soldiers beating incredible odds to put up a defense against an overwhelmingly superior Russian military. You had what was whittled down to be a group of hungry, thirsty soldiers who had not had a rest in two months, who were out of ammunition, who were out of water, fight the vastly superior Russian military to a draw. This was a negotiated settlement, this was not a defeat that Putin wanted. Putin didn't go into the Azov steel plant and raise the Russian flag."

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