Mariupol, the fortress city, has not yet fallen. A military expert discusses the city’s defense, and its fate

6 April, 06:42 PM
Ukrainian forces - marines, Azov and infantry brigade have been holding the defense of Mariupol for more than 39 days (Photo:AP Photo / Mstyslav Chernov)

Ukrainian forces - marines, Azov and infantry brigade have been holding the defense of Mariupol for more than 39 days (Photo:AP Photo / Mstyslav Chernov)

How Mariupol is managing to withstand the relentless Russian assault, and when Ukraines Armed Forces may try to lift the siege – these are some of the topic NV covered in an interview with Victor Kevlyuk, a military expert.

Our marines, infantry, and the Azov battalion have been defending Mariupol for 40 days straight. They are repelling Russian special forces, panzer divisions, and other regiments.

NV: What’s the current situation like with Mariupol’s defense?

Kevlyuk: The city is encircled. Our 56th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, 36th Marine Brigade, 12th National Guard Brigade, and the Azov battalion are defending the city.

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In the west, our infantrymen are grinding down 68th and 163rd regiments of Russia’s 150th Panzer Division. The division’s commander, Oleg Mityaev, was “expunged” on March 3. To the north, marines are battling the 810th Marine Brigade of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which has a lot of Ukrainian traitors. Their commander, Alexei Sharov, has also been killed. These Crimea regiments were stunned with how fierce resistance in Mariupol has been, which prompted “a visit of encouragement” from the deputy commander of Russian Black Sea Fleet. He similarly met his demise there.

In the meantime, the commander of our marines there, Volodymyr Baranyuk, was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine on March 19.

Mariupol’s east is being manned by dug-in Azov: they are fiercely defending their home town from Russian BTGs of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, 150th Infantry Division, and the Kadyrov RosGuard battalion. Azov’s commander, Major Denis Prokopenko, is also a Hero of Ukraine.

Kadyrov’s goons have creeped into the city’s eastern industrial district, with much blood spilled. The 102nd regiment is bombing the city, with no regard for whether they are hitting military or civilian targets. Meaning, they have bombed enough for more than one Hague tribunal. The 163rd Tank Regiment is pushing towards the city center. Very slowly, with heavy losses, but pushing nonetheless. The brunt of the assault is focused on the western direction, where our marines are maintaining a staunch defense, while slowly retreating towards downtown.

There are no “people’s militia” forces of the so-called “people’s republic” present in Mariupol. The city is being pummeled by professional Russian troops.

NV: What are the enemy’s losses?

Kevlyuk: Well, the 163rd Tank Regiment lost about 550 troops from its two BTGs, at the outset of the invasion. The 102nd Infantry Regiment sustained 880 casualties to its single BTG, including its commander, colonel Viktor Isaykin, who was KIA.

On March 3, one of Russian commanders, colonel Popov, … asked the troops of the 150th Division to volunteer for an assault on the city. 70 servicemembers obliged. On March 4, the assembled tank battalion left for Mariupol. They didn’t reach the destination; four soldiers are the only survivors.

On March 5, 150 soldiers of the 102nd regiment returned to their field base, following a “close encounter” with Azov. They refused to attack the city again and were fired. It’s hard to overestimate the number of deserters.

On March 7, 200 body bags arrived to a hospital in (Russian) Rostov-on-Don.

I don’t have concrete numbers for other days, but the trend is clear.

NV: How would you describe the fighting itself? Why are Russian deploying special ops?

Kevlyuk: We’re talking about a primitive assault “at any cost.” They haven’t learnt any lessons from the 1994-1995 Battle of Grozny (Russians assaulted the Chechen capital on New Year’s Eve, losing 20 out 26 tanks, and 102 out of 120 IFVs).

Two tank regiments of the 150th division were tasked with taking Mariupol. Incidentally, they division is relatively new, and lacks certain equipment. For instance, they are using obsolete T-72B3 tanks. Their artillery is comprised of 122mm howitzers. Sure, they decided to use larger calibers, those could be Akatsiyas (152mm self-propelled howitzer), or Msta-S (another 152mm howitzer), sine it was designated as the staple self-propelled artillery of their army doctrine. In that case, they should have some long-range artillery that would ensure deep fire support. But that’s not the case, so the doctrine is not observed. The division’s artillery regiment has the objective of striking at enemy artillery, but they can’t do that with the slow and heavy Msta-S. What are they going to do with these guns in their infantry regiment, if they were designed for army brigades? It stands to reason that the 150th Division was hastily equipped with what they could gather on a short notice. Some officer of their Missile and Artillery Armaments service ticked a box and moved on. As a result, the division is left with a deficient fire support system.

They are also using Tornado-G MLRS’, and a maintenance company, instead of a full battalion. Some of their regiments are using different IFVs: both the BMP-3 and the BTR-82A. It’s all patchwork, looks like the 150th was equipped with anything they could find.

On the subject of special ops: Russia uses these troops as elite infantry, since their regular ground troops have much worse training, equipment, and morale.

The 22nd Special Ops Brigade from Rostov was also spotted in Mariupol. In general, using these troops to assault a city is like hammering nails with an exquisite chandelier, a pointless waste of potential.

NV: Azov regularly reports enemy losses: a couple tanks a day, 20 to 50 soldiers. Does this mean that the action is not too energetic?

Kevlyuk: The fighting is rather intense. That is made clear by the number of daily sorties Russian air force conducts near Mariupol. The somewhat muted Russian losses can be explained with two points. First, Azov is engaged in the industrial district in the city’s east, where it’s difficult to deploy heavy equipment. Second, the engagements are long-range, since the urban landscape is preventing our AT troops from approaching enemy tanks any closer than the maximum range.

NV: How effective is the defense?

Kevlyuk: It’s holding for 39 days. That figure alone should answer your question in full. Enemy forces could not find any “seams” between our guys and exploit them. They couldn’t advance along major streets. They can’t even properly capitalize on their advantage in artillery and air power. They are capable of only squeezing our troops out with overwhelming numbers.

NV: The Russians are methodically destroying the city’s buildings. Why?

Kevlyuk: There is no rationale behind the destruction of civil infrastructure. Why did they obliterate Grozny and Aleppo? It’s their old Soviet mentality: “war can make anything right.” They are also deeply frustrated with their inability to breach the defenses; their hatred for the defenders is a contributing factor. They are left with nothing else to do but to destroy everything and everyone in their sight, including civilians.

NV: The enemy is advancing most rapidly from the west. Is it because we expected them there the least, after Berdyansk fell with little resistance?

Kevlyuk: The fact the brunt of their assault is coming from the west has nothing to do with Berdyansk. The relatively flat terrain allows the Russians to have fun with two tank regiments there. The city’s airport is also in that direction. Our 56th Brigade is facing westward, and the invaders can’t break through their lines for 39 days. Does this look like we didn’t expect them?

NV: What can you tell us about what Kadyrov’s goons are doing? There are many videos of them shooting at traffic lights.

Kevlyuk: We shouldn’t talk about Kadyrov’s bum boys as some kind of special caste of “super soldiers.” “Bandervitsi” care little for “Kadyrovtsi.” It’s just regular infantry, in slightly different uniforms, with better equipment, unprepared for urban combat. After all, the core of Chechnya’s 141st RosGuard Regiment (the official designation of these troops) is made up of former guerilla fighters. Essentially, they are simply former criminals and bandits, who expediently switched their allegiance. They don’t have a military education, with no experience of combined arms action, proficient only in intimidating and suppressing local opposition. “Putin’s infantry,” if you will. One such battalion, named “BTGr”, reached our position. Once police start cosplaying as military BTGs, it doesn’t last long. They initially “toured” Hostomel, to mixed reviews: their commanding officer, a major general, was killed. Their old engagement at the Donetsk airport (back in 2014) was similarly limp: our boys said they waltzed in, scored some potshots, filled two trucks with their fallen, and left. The “Tik-Tok battalion” is an apt name; Azov knows how to deal with them.

NV: Your nephew is one of the guys defending the city; what does he have to say about their situation?

Kevlyuk: He contacts (me) maybe once a week. Says it’s difficult there, not in so many words.

NV: Mariupol seems a bit like the Donetsk airport (it was utterly destroyed after many weeks of heavy fighting). Could it be that our troops would have to leave the destroyed city?

Kevlyuk: It’s absolutely not the same. It’s a city of half a million residents (pre-war), one of the best municipal administrations in the country, industrialized, with a port, an airport, and developed infrastructure. 80% of it is destroyed at this point, with $10 billion in losses. It’s a tragedy at the heart of Europe, comparable with Nagasaki: 73,000 killed, 35,000 wounded, 111 square kilometers of devastation. I hope I’m way off on my estimate of casualties in Mariupol, but I’m certain we’ll be horrified (when the extent of the tragedy becomes clear).

NV: Russians claim that we sent some helicopters to aid our troops in the city. They even claim to have shot down and captured some of them. Is there any truth to this? And for long can the city hold, when will we have to try and lift the siege?

Kevlyuk: I’ve only seen reports by foreign media about those helicopters. Our General Staff provided no confirmation.

According to Western reports, a number of Mi-8 helicopters reached the city, delivered ammo, rations, and medical supplies. As they were carrying out wounded on their way back, one of them was shot down. 15 servicemembers died, two were captured, and three helicopters made it back to our lines. I have nothing but the utmost respect for those pilots, it was an incredible mission.

Mariupol’s defenders have already exceeded the expectations, four times over, based on the force differential. They are operating far beyond normal human capabilities.

I think it’s time to try and break the encirclement around the city.

The enemy forces assaulting it don’t seem insurmountable; our boys are stretched far beyond their capacity; leaving the city would assuredly lead to the death of the civilian population. We can’t abandon Mariupol.

The only somewhat realistic option is for our armed forces to try and reach the city from Vuhledar, striking between the Russian 163rd Regiment and 810th Marine Brigade

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