Everything went to hell for the Ukrainian armed forces in the opening minutes of an ambush near Kominternovo on September 5, 2014. Before they could fire a single shot, all four Ukrainian T-64B1 tanks leading a military column were knocked out by a flurry of anti-tank guided missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and 125-millimeter shells from Russian T-72 tanks.
The remaining T-64s and BMP fighting vehicles of the 17th Brigade fanned out into battle alongside infantry of the 23rd Hortisya battalion. But the situation only got worse—the 125-millimeter guns of three of the four surviving tanks proved non-functional due to botched pre-battle maintenance.
The attack on Kominternovo, as chronicled by Ukrainian military historian Mikhail Jirokhov, was aimed at rolling back a Russian offensive that seemed poised to capture the port city of a half-million people. But that effort did not kick off auspiciously.
Strategic City on the Sea of Azov
Mariupol is situated 25 miles west of Ukraine’s border with Russia on the Sea of Azov—a body of water enclosed by the Crimean and Taman peninsulas at the Kerch Strait. Its two steel factories, Illich Steel & Iron Works and Azovstal, accounted for a large chunk of Ukrainian steel production.
Though the city’s population was a mix of Ukrainian and Russian ethnicity, its residents primarily spoke Russian and voted for pro-Russian political candidates in Ukrainian elections.
Early in 2014, after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president fled in the wake of a mass protest movement, Russian forces seized the Crimean Peninsula in February. In March, activists in Mariupol city began protesting Ukraine’s new government. By April, this escalated to deadly clashes between pro-Russian groups and Ukrainian armed forces.
Events came to a head on May 9, 2014 when pro-Russian groups stormed the Mariupol police headquarters. In the ensuing scuffle, the building caught fire, shots were exchanged and a Ukrainian BMP-2 fighting vehicle was captured by pro-Russian elements. The Ukrainian military fell back out of the city but maintained positions surrounding it.
Had separatists retained control, this would have marked a major victory, and not only because of Mariupol’s economic significance. Many strategists saw Mariupol as a key steppingstone to Russia seizing a “land bridge” across Ukraine territory connecting Russia to the Crimean Peninsula. Such a move would ease the logistics of enforcing and trading with Russian-seized Crimea.
However, the owner of the Azovstal factory formed a militia from his steel workers which gradually evicted the separatists from parts of the city. Then on June 14, the Ukrainian Dnipr-1 and “Right Sector” Azov volunteer battalions (the latter notorious for its association with neo-Nazis) re-entered the city. In a six-hour battle, five separatists and two volunteers were killed, several light armored vehicles knocked out, and the city fell back under Ukrainian control.
Altogether, around thirty-forty people died in the skirmishes over Mariupol—violence on a smaller scale than the intense fighting occurring in cities like Donetsk fifty miles to the north.
The Tanks of August
Mariupol’s part in the conflict seemed over. By the end of July, the Ukrainian military appeared on the verge of defeating the self-proclaimed separatist armies despite increasingly overt flows of armored vehicles, artillery and personnel from Russia.
To salvage the situation, in August Moscow deployed eight battalion tactical groups (composed of a mix of mechanized infantry, tanks, artillery and air defense systems) across the border. These dealt Ukrainian forces a major defeat in the Battle of Ilovaisk.
In the chaotic aftermath a battalion-strength armored column “appeared” on the Russian border northeast of Mariupol, brushing aside a detachment of the 9th Vinnitsya territorial battalion at the border village of Koskove. The hapless defenders could not penetrate the armor of T-72 tanks with their automatic grenade launchers and light RPG-18 anti-tank rockets.
By August 28, the Russian force had rolled southwest and captured the coastal town of Novoazovsk. Advancing along the coastal highway the column then captured Bezimenne, within ten miles Mariupol itself.
Because there had been little separatist presence in the area after June, Mariupol and its approaches had been left largely undefended, with only three volunteer battalions and some tanks from the 17th Brigade in the area according to Jirakhov.
But for unknown reasons, the Russian column didn’t continue the advance into the city itself. Given the state of the Mariupol’s defenses, had it attacked the city would likely have fallen. Possibly, the commander was wary of advancing his tank tanks into the city, as the force lacked a major separatist infantry force to escort the tanks.
Nonetheless, panic broke out in Mariupol, with citizens fleeing the community while journalists flocked to it, anticipating an imminent Russian takeover. Meanwhile, also in August, a volley of five Kornet or Chrysanthemum anti-tank missiles struck two Ukrainian ships off Bezimenne, sinking one, heightening the sense of a siege.
By early September, Ukrainian forces were scrambling to set up defenses in Shyrokine, the village halfway between Novoazovsk and Mariupol. They came upon the idea of using fifteen-centimer thick sheets of steel piling up by the Azovstal factory to serve as makeshift fortifications.
When Russian forces resumed the offensive on September 4, the steel barricades reportedly helped protect the attackers from shrapnel from Russian artillery and tanks. In one incident, an attacking armored column halted after a tank triggered an improvised mine fashioned out of a fire extinguisher.
Disaster at Kominternovo
While Azov delayed the Russian advance around Shyrokine, on September 5 the Ukrainian military cobbled together a second force to drive Russian forces back from the northeastern outskirts of Mariupol, in the action described at the beginning of the article.
During the battle, the Ukrainian tank commander eventually was down to just one tank with a functioning gun. At that point, he ordered his troops to fall back into the village. The Ukrainian force managed to beat back an enemy infantry advancing across a cornfield, while a lucky shot from a rocket-propelled grenade struck a Russian T-72 tank between the hull and turret, disabling it.
The raiding force force then held the village for several hours, shielded by an artillery barrage by 2S19 152-millimeter howitzers of the 55th artillery brigade—but they in turn were packed close together in the village, making them an ideal target for a Russian mortar barrage. A Ukrainian national guard unit mounted in armored personnel carriers attempted to relieve the defenders, but was forced back by Russian fire. By the evening, the Ukrainian column withdrew and left much of its equipment behind.
But that evening Kiev signed onto the Minsk I ceasefire. Though fighting raged on, the Russian column did not resume its advance.
Deadly Rain Over Mariupol
The War on Donbass transitioned to positional warfare over places such as the Luhansk and Donetsk airports and the town of Debaltseve—all of which fell to Russian forces by February 2015. Mariupol too remained in the crosshairs, but proved less pliable.
On January 24, 2015 BM-21 Grad and BM-27 Uragan multiple launchers systems unleashed a hail of 122- and 220-millimeter rockets on a residential area in eastern Mariupol, killing 1 soldier and 30 civilians and injuring 102. Later, intercepted conversations reveal the bombardment was planned by senior Russian military officers. You can see the bombardments and its aftermath recorded here and here. The barrage was followed by a new separatist ground offensive that again stalled around Shyrokine.
Then on February 10, Ukrainian forces spearheaded by the Azov battalion began a counter offensive aimed at recapturing Novoazovsk. Shyrokine changed hands multiple times before rebel forces quietly withdrew in July.
In 2018, Russia completed construction of the massive Kerch bridge, connecting the Taman peninsula to Crimea—making it possible for Russia to restrict shipping to and from Mariupol. When a Ukrainian Navy gunboat attempted to pass through the Kerch strait in 2018, it was harried and ultimately captured by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Unlike the situation in late August of 2014, capturing and holding Mariupol today would require a larger scale military commitment from Russia. For now, it seems unlikely the conflict will escalate again to such a destructive level, but one can’t be too sure as long as fighting continues.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.