Will the Closure at Azovstal Plant Steel Ukraine’s Resolve to Keep Fighting?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 75

A service member of pro-Russian troops stands guard on a road near a bus carrying Ukrainian soldiers, who surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel mill in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict, near Mariupol, Ukraine May 20, 2022 (Source: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko)

In the seemingly deadlocked but, in fact, fast-evolving war in Ukraine, two impactful events coincided in mid-May, altering the course of the battles and political stand-off. The first one was the end of the months-long resistance of Mariupol, as the last defenders of the city’s Azovstal steel plant emerged from their underground fortress. The second one was the United States Senate’s approval of the emergency aid package to Ukraine amounting to the colossal sum of $40 billion. These developments might appear to drive the war in different directions, promoting, respectively, its fast conclusion or continuing transformation. Yet in reality, when taken together, they signify a new boost to the already-high resolve of the Ukrainian state and society to defeat Russia’s aggression, along with a fresh surge in Western support for this cause. Presumably nobody wants the war to drag on for years; but since Russian ambitions and Ukrainian patriotism remain incompatible, diplomats have a slim chance to invent a compromise, and it is up to the soldiers to break the deadlock (Rosbalt, May 19).

Moscow is trying to present the capture of Azovstal as a major victory: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Russia’s successful end of the siege and the surrender of 2,439 enemy fighters (Izvestia, May 21). This triumphalism rings hollow, however, as it is impossible to deny the valor and determination of the defenders, who fought for 86 days encircled by overwhelming forces and only ended their resistance on the order from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Meduza, May 19). Their fighting tied down a large grouping of Russian forces in bloody urban combat, buying time for the Ukrainian army to regroup after the battle for Kyiv, push the enemy eastwards from the outskirts of Kharkiv to the state border, and concentrate Ukrainian resources on the struggle for Donbas (Svoboda.org, May 20). In the grueling battles over the regional cities of Izyum and Severodonetsk, Russian command relies primarily on superiority in firepower, as its battalions are increasingly undermanned. However, the arrival of various Western long-range artillery systems with high-precision munitions changes the calculus, giving Ukrainian commanders the initiative to choose the place for a next counterattack (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, May 19).

The expansion of US military aid enables Ukraine to build up its offensive capabilities and inflict on Russia not just casualties but painful frontline setbacks, particularly in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 18). Nevertheless—whether or not Ukraine can liberate its southern territories and then restore control over the devastated Donbas—economic rehabilitation will ultimately matter far more (Forbes.ua, May 11). The newly approved US aid package, thus, effectively amounts to a new Marshall plan, which made possible the fast revival of the West European economies after the World War II. The European Union also shows readiness to contribute its fair share to the enormous task of wartime support and post-war reconstruction of Ukraine’s economy (Kommersant, May 19).

Russia’s economy, meanwhile, experiences its own severe distortions. Official reassurances claim the country will experience only a “moderate” GDP contraction of 10–15 percent over the coming year; but such assertions are unverifiable because of the increasingly limited access to Russian statistical data (Kommersant, May 20). The trade surplus remains hefty, but it is a sign of weakness rather than strength because a significant decline in export revenues is over-compensated for by the sharp drop in imports—not only of consumer goods but primarily of machinery and technology (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 17). Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev recently admitted, in a rare moment of frankness, that Western sanctions have “practically broken all logistics in our country” (RBC, May 22).

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sees this crisis as an opportunity to withdraw Russia from the World Trade Organization (WTO), but the economic bloc in the government managed to persuade President Vladimir Putin of the self-defeating consequences of such a move (RBC, May 21). What matters most is the breakdown of the many supply chains feeding the domestic defense industry. However, Putin’s instruction to reenergize talks inside the WTO cannot possibly open a path to circumventing the Western sanctions that cause multiple disruptions in the production of key Russian weapons systems (Riddle, May 16).

Pursuing a protracted war with an exhausted army and dysfunctional military-industrial complex is clearly a bad strategic proposition. The mainstream stance among Moscow-based experts is still in support of mobilization for sustaining the “special military operation”; only rare voices argue that defeat is a distinct possibility (Russiancouncil.ru, May 21). Even the “patriotic” majority has to reflect on the fact that Russia challenges the reunited West alone, while many influential states, like India or Brazil, prefer non-alignment and China grants only symbolic support (Russia in Global Affairs, May 20).

Expectations that Beijing would come to Moscow’s rescue materially have all but evaporated, and the main new hope is that an escalation in the US-China confrontation might demand priority attention in Washington, thus reducing US focus on and support for Ukraine (Republic.ru, May 19). President Joseph Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan is wishfully assessed inside Russia as signifying growing likelihood of such a scenario (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 19). Tensions in the conflict-rich but war-free Indo-Pacific macro-region may indeed rise, but the violent crisis in Europe almost inadvertently produces a stabilizing impact. Influential Asian leaders become wary of delivering their countries into a trap similar to Putin’s fateful blunder that now endangers Russia’s future (Svoboda.org, May 20).

Ukraine still looks firmly set to defend its future, yet the prospect of a long war is inevitably exposing it to great peril. Its society is mobilized to uphold and restore the country’s sovereignty; and the heroism of the Azovstal defenders may strengthen Ukrainians’ determination to fight for victory. However, the collective desire is to gain this victory in a matter of weeks rather than months, let alone years. For Ukraine, the need to stop missile strikes on Odesa and Lviv is urgent, and the task of rebuilding Kharkiv, damaged by artillery barrages, is unpostponable. For many in the West, on the other hand, a years-long confrontation might seem to be a safer option, as Russia’s prolonged degradation would reduce the risk of the Kremlin suddenly feeling the need to resort to nuclear weapons. Procrastination could be a useful and even winning war strategy, but the massive US investment in Ukraine’s resilience proves that the alliance of democracies can act more quickly and resolutely.