Amid heavy fighting in the eastern city of Severodonetsk in Ukraine, the Russian forces issued an ultimatum to the Ukrainian forces in the Azot Chemical Plant to surrender by early Wednesday. To the surprise of no one, Ukraine refused this ultimatum and kept fighting.

In what seems to be an eerily similar situation to Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steelworks Plant, Ukrainian fighters and civilians have taken refuge in the Azot Chemical Plant located in Severodonetsk. Russian forces issued the ultimatum to these forces, urging them to surrender in order to stop the “senseless resistance and lay down arms.” While issuing the ultimatum, they promised that all civilians would be allowed to leave via a humanitarian corridor

“Guided by the principles of humanity, the Russian armed forces and the formations of the Luhansk People’s Republic are ready to organize a humanitarian operation to evacuate civilians,” the Russian Defense Ministry said.

According to the Ukrainian government, 500 civilians are trapped within the Azot Chemical Plant, along with an undisclosed number of Ukrainian troops. A representative from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, Vitaly Kiselyov, stated that they estimate there were some 2,500 Ukrainian and foreign fighters in Azot. However, SOFREP could not verify these claims.

Here, they tried to push back the advancing Russian forces for weeks, surviving Russian bombardment campaigns and assaults that have left much of Severodonetsk destroyed, another similarity the city shares with the southern port city of Mariupol, which has since been Russian controlled. The Russians have also accused the Ukrainians of using civilians holed up within the chemical plant as human shields so that the Russians cannot bomb them out. We are unaware of any instance where the presence of civilians has stayed Russia’s hand in raining down bombs and missiles on a town or city in Ukraine.

These troops holed up in the Azot Chemical Plant are important Ukrainian lines of defense as the Russian forces may be able to push onward to Lysychansk if they withdraw from the factory. In retrospect, it is functioning much like Mariupol and the Ukrainian forces who held out Russian advances within the city as their resistance prevented the Russian forces from capturing other closeby towns, saving them from Russian occupation.

Currently, the Ukrainian government has reported that Severodonetsk is 70% controlled by the Russians (some say 80%). This number may have gone up in recent days due to constant shelling and trouble with Ukrainian morale, but they insist that 20% is still Ukrainian held. If the Russians are successful in pushing the Ukrainians out of Severdonetsk and push onward to Lysychansk, they will now be in complete control of Luhansk – one of their war goals as they shifted their offensive from Kyiv to Donbas.

The Azot Chemical Plant in Severodonetsk (D.Emery). Source:
The Azot Chemical Plant in Severodonetsk (D.Emery/Twitter)

“They’re defending Sievierodonetsk and not letting them to advance to Lysychansk,” Governor of the Luhansk Region Serhiy Gaidai said. “It’s getting harder, but our military are holding back the enemy from three directions at once,” he added, posting the update just before Russia’s surrender deadline. Gaidai also added that the civilians and troops held up in Azot were somewhat vulnerable as their “psychological state is on edge.”

“Nevertheless, the Russians are close and the population is suffering, and homes are being destroyed,” referring to the heavy Russian shelling that has been the source of Ukraine’s problems in the east.

The British Defense Ministry claims that the Russian forces now control the majority of Severodonetsk, confirming that there had been extensive collateral damage throughout the city. They have also confirmed the intel that civilians and Ukrainian soldiers have been taking shelter in the Azot Chemical Plant.

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“Russian forces will likely be fixed in and around Azot whilst Ukrainian fighters can survive underground. This will likely temporarily prevent Russia from re-tasking these units for missions elsewhere,” they said. “It is highly unlikely that Russia anticipated such robust opposition or such slow, attritional conflict during its original planning for the invasion.”

Some 12,000 people still remain inside Severodonetsk, compared to its pre-war population of over 100,000.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated that their losses in Severodonetsk were “painful” but encouraged the Ukrainian population to hold on as they needed to defend their country.

“We have to hold strong … The more losses the enemy suffers, (the) less strength it will have to pursue its aggression,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

With the Ukrainians getting shelled daily, and with the final bridge linking Severodonetsk to Lysychansk being destroyed a few days ago, it will be difficult for the Ukrainians to resupply their troops that are still holding up in Severodonetsk. Furthermore, it will be difficult to get civilians out en masse without the Ukrainians clearing a definitive path out of the city, all while fighting off Russians with their constant artillery shelling.

The Russian forces have not yet encircled Severodonetsk and will be facing determined resistance from the Ukrainians for every meter of ground they take. Russia would very much like to capture the region with its economic and industrial assets intact, but in Severodonetsk, Ukraine is engaged in a “Scorched Earth” strategy forcing the Russians to destroy everything in order to capture a city reduced to rubble by the invader, If they do take the city, they will find it mostly a ghost town of smashed homes, apartments, shops and factories making it useless to Russia in terms of economic output.  Pro-Russian residents that do return afterward will be little more than refugees, requiring the assistance of Russia for food, fuel, water, and heat to ward off starvation and disease. Russia will also have to foot the bill to rebuild its demolished industrial capacity.