But now, amid a devastating war and weeks-long siege by Russian forces, the sprawling industrial park is no longer producing steel. Instead, the plant and its network of underground tunnels are serving as a shelter and final holdout for thousands of Ukrainian fighters, including many from the Azov Battalion, one of Ukraine’s most skilled — and controversial — military units.
As many as 1,000 civilians are also hiding in the subterranean network, Mariupol’s city council said in a Telegram message Monday.
Azovstal was originally constructed in the early Soviet era and was later rebuilt after the Nazi occupation of Mariupol between 1941 and 1943 left it in ruins. It now occupies four square miles along the city’s waterfront.
“Under the city, there is basically another city,” Yan Gagin, an advisor with the pro-Moscow separatist group Donetsk People’s Republic, told Russian state news network Ria Novosti over the weekend.
Gagin complained that the site was designed to withstand bombings and blockades — and that it has an inbuilt communication system that strongly favors the defenders, even if they are far outnumbered.
Sergiy Zgurets, a Ukrainian military analyst, told Reuters that the Russians are using “heavy bombs” in the Azovstal area given its large size and number of workshops.
But if Russia were to take the steelworks, it would be a much-needed victory for the Kremlin.
After failing to overrun Kyiv in the war’s first days, Russian forces have regrouped in eastern Ukraine with an apparent plan to seize large parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, together known as the Donbas.
Mariupol, with a prewar population of around 450,000, is one of the last urban areas of Donetsk that is not fully under Russian control. Controlling it would give Russian forces a land bridge between continental Russia and Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Azovstal and other similar sites in the city are also prime examples of why Donbas and its industrial heritage are so important for both Ukraine and Russia. Mariupol is Ukraine’s second-largest port city and, at least before comprehensive Western sanctions, Russia had a booming steel sector that was valued as the fifth largest in the world.
Donbas is known best for its coal, but Mariupol also had a profitable metal industry. Roughly 40,000 residents were employed at Azovstal and another nearby steelworks owned by the same company, Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, according to steel giant Metinvest.
Together, Azovstal and Ilyich accounted for roughly one-third of Ukraine’s crude steel production in 2019, according to tracking from the analyst group GMK Center. That year, steel and related industries contributed 12 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product.
Russian forces stormed the smaller Ilyich plant last week. But Metinvest said in a statement to Reuters last week that it would “never operate under Russian occupation.”
Taras Shevchenko, director general of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, said Monday in an interview with the Ukraine 24 news channel, that the Russian action in Mariupol was a “deliberate, systematic destruction of industry.”
He said the company was assessing the extent of the damage and vowed to restore the metallurgical plants. His remarks were published on Metinvest Group’s website.
Azovstal has seen conflict before. Production at the site began in 1933, but less than a decade later Mariupol was overrun by German troops during World War II and works were halted amid a dramatic exodus of civilians from the city.
But by 1944, just one year after the occupation ended, work was already underway to rebuild the plant, which soon became a productive and profitable part of the Soviet steel industry.
Sixty years later, the plant saw off outside interlopers again, when steelworkers from Azovstal organized to forcefully retake the city from pro-Russian separatists in 2014. The resilience surprised many observers for a city where a majority spoke Russian and had often voted for politicians friendly to Moscow.
Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and the owner of Metinvest, has served as a member of parliament for the pro-Moscow Party of Regions and has been followed by accusations of murky underworld dealings — including a supporting role in federal investigations of President Trump’s links to Moscow.
Akhmetov turned against the separatists in 2014. This year he refused to back the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, despite a public feud with President Volodymyr Zelensky, he has helped fund the government by making a $34 million advance tax payment.
Ukraine’s steel and iron industry declined in the immediate years after 2014, with tons of crude steel production from Azovstal dropping by over a million tonnes between 2013 and 2015, according to GMK Center. But with new investment in Mariupol, there had been a positive trend for the industry in more recent years. Metinvest had plans for a $1 billion investment into its steel and iron industry sites in the area.
In mid-March, the chief executive of Azovstal said that nearby fighting meant the site had been shut down for the first time since the Nazi occupation. Enver Tskitishvili, speaking in a video address from Kyiv, said that the shutdown would be only temporary.
“We will return to the city, rebuild the enterprise and revive it. It will work and bring glory to Ukraine the same way it always has,” Tskitishvili said. “Because Mariupol is Ukraine. Azovstal is Ukraine,”
Niha Masih in Washington contributed reporting.