As Russia looms over eastern Ukraine, Canadians said to be among surrounded fighters

They are holed up in a gargantuan Soviet-era steel plant, surrounded by Russian troops, and starved of both weapons and food.

An estimated 2,500 soldiers fighting for Ukraine, dubbed the Defenders of Mariupol, are a dwindling and depleted force consisting of Ukrainian Marines and as many as 400 foreigner volunteers — Canadians said to be among them.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has referred to the fight in Mariupol, a strategic southeastern port city on the coast of the Sea of Azov, as “the heart” of the war.

“If it beats, we fight, we are strong. If it stops beating, we will have a weaker position,” he has said.

It is a sentiment that was being acutely felt Monday as Russian forces launched a push to occupy the entirety of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces began the attack along a broad front more than 480 kilometres wide, according to Ukrainian officials. The Kremlin has, in recent weeks, moved the goalposts in its war, newly declaring that the capture of the Donbas region is its main aim.

The Russian Defence Ministry claimed that Canadians were among the under-siege fighters at the Azovstal steel plant, citing information obtained from intercepted radio transmissions. It has since been repeated by the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic — the breakaway administration in eastern Ukraine — and a Donetsk military commander, who identified the foreigners as “instructors.”

“You always have to take seriously those who come as instructors,” the commander, identified only as “Khokhol,” said in a video published by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

“If we get our hands on those guys, it will be a really huge upset.”

The Russian Defence Ministry claims that 6,824 “foreign mercenaries” from 63 countries have come to fight with Ukrainian forces since the invasion began on Feb. 24. An official said Sunday that 1,717 — constituting the largest group — have come from Poland. Another 1,500 are American, Canadian or Romanian. Three hundred each are said to have come from Britain and Georgia, and 193 from Syria.

Among the foreigners surrounded in Mariupol, “most of them are citizens of European countries, as well as Canada,” the Russian military stated Sunday. Though unusually specific, the Russian claims have not been supported by any evidence and cannot be verified.

Military officials in Moscow and in Donetsk could not be reached for interviews. Canadians involved in the recruitment of fighters to support Ukraine were also unable to say whether combatants from this country were in Mariupol or in what numbers.

Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a former Liberal MP from Toronto, has been assisting in the creation of a foreign legion — organized and controlled by the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa — for those wishing to fight.

“There are no Canadians, as far as we know (in) the International Legion for the Territorial Defence of Ukraine, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that there are Canadians who may have just gone over on their own without notification or registering with the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa,” he said.

One such person, a former Canadian Armed Forces sniper, was celebrated in Russian-language propaganda networks as having been killed in Mariupol last month, when in fact he was nowhere near the city. “They will lose credibility if they keep doing such obvious lies,” the sniper told the Star at the time.

However, several British volunteer fighters have recently surrendered to or were captured by the Russians in Mariupol.

In one video posted Monday to the Telegram channel of the Russian Embassy in Canada, U.K. citizen Aiden Aslin is filmed in handcuffs and an olive-green shirt with the logo of the Azov Battalion. Aslin was a popular social-media source before his capture.

In a statement to the Star, Global Affairs Canada said it has not received any demands for help from Canadians fighting for Ukraine and trapped inside the Azovstal plant. It also warned that Canadian consular officials may be unable to assist fighters injured or captured by Russian forces.

Despite the dire circumstances, it could take more time still before Mariupol’s final military redoubt is overrun — in great part due to the labyrinthine construction of a steel plant that has already endured a war and a revolution.

Opened in 1933, the factory, which produces steel for the shipbuilding, oil-drilling and rail industries, was shut down when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in October 1941. Two years later, in 1943, Hitler’s retreating forces blew up the facilities.

Its current owner is oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s wealthiest individual, who formed his workers into a “People’s Guard” to defend Mariupol against pro-Russian forces when civil war broke out in the spring of 2014.

With a nuclear-safe shelter and an underground layout that has been likened to a city beneath a city, the steel factory makes a superb military bunker. Zelenskyy, in remarks published last weekend, said his government is still in regular contact with the last holdouts there.

“The situation in Mariupol is not improving. Our military is blocked. There are many wounded. There are people killed, unfortunately. It’s a humanitarian crisis. There’s a lack of food and water, and no medicine,” he said. “However, the guys are heroically defending themselves. We are grateful to them for that.”

But gratitude is not what the surrounded fighters need most.

In a letter obtained and published Monday by the news outlet Ukrainskaya Pravda, the head of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, who is among the surrounded soldiers, wrote that the Russian siege has trapped civilians in the bombarded city, forcing women and children to take shelter in military bunkers.

“Our wounded are dying in unbearable agony every day because medicines, decontamination and pain-relief options have been exhausted,” wrote Sergey Volyna, the brigade’s commander.

Volyna called on the Russian blockade to be breached with heavy weapons from European nations and the United States.

“Mariupol can be saved. We are ready to fight to the last drop of blood, but we need to know that the world has done everything possible for this. Then we are ready to do even the impossible for our country.”

The Ukrainian government made an urgent appeal Monday to the Russian government for the creation of a humanitarian corridor allowing civilians to safely leave Mariupol for Berdyansk, a coastal city to the west on the Sea of Azov.

“Separately, we demand an urgent humanitarian corridor from the territory of the Azovstal plant for women, children and other civilians,” said Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s minister of reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories.

“Your refusal to open these humanitarian corridors will in the future be grounds for prosecuting all those involved in war crimes.”

Denis Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Battalion, wrote on Telegram on Monday that “hundreds of civilians” have taken shelter at the factory.

“Russian occupational forces … know about civilians and they keep their fire on the factory willingly. They use free-fall bombs, rockets, bunker-buster bombs, all varieties of artillery, both ground and naval, for indiscriminate attacks,” he wrote, in a call to world leaders for a humanitarian corridor out of Mariupol.

“I urge the politicians of the civilized world to organize a proper ‘green corridor,’ ensure its safety and provide immediate evacuation and protection of civilians, wounded soldiers and bodies of dead soldiers, to bury them with honours.”

A video from one of the underground dormitories at the factory complex showed babies, children, young girls and mothers living in cramped and crowded conditions, despair on their pale, sun-deprived faces.

“I want to know that everything is OK with my sister and my grandmother,” says one red-haired teenager. “I want to know that they are alive and to be with them.”

“We want to live peacefully, normally,” an older woman beside her continues. “We want to get out of here.”

With files from The Associated Press

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