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Smoke over the Azot chemical plant after an attack. June 10, 2022

Hundreds of civilians are trapped in the besieged Azot chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk. The assault has drawn comparisons to Azovstal, but this time could be different.

Source: Meduza
Smoke over the Azot chemical plant after an attack. June 10, 2022
Smoke over the Azot chemical plant after an attack. June 10, 2022
Oleksandr Ratushniak / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On June 15, Russian officials announced the opening of a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the Azot chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk. The corridor led evacuees to the city of Svatove, which is on the territory of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR). Russia’s Defense Ministry rejected Ukraine’s request to organize an evacuation route to Lysychansk, which is under Ukrainian control.

On the first day of evacuations, the Russian army accused Ukraine of breaking the ceasefire. Representatives of the self-proclaimed LNR claimed that Ukrainian troops fired on the evacuation path. The only evacuee, they said, was an “old guy” who didn’t know the humanitarian corridor was open.

According to Ukrainian officials, as many as 500 civilians may currently be sheltering in the Azot plant. According to Russia, the number is between 300 and 1,200. The self-proclaimed LNR has claimed that the civilians are in bomb shelters under the facility that are controlled by 1,500-2,000 Ukrainian soldiers, who are allegedly using the civilians as a “human shield.”

Azot is one of Ukraine’s largest chemical plants. It first began operations in 1951 and is responsible for the development of modern Sievierodonetsk. The plant is now owned by Ukrainian businessman Dmytro Firtash. Until Russia launched its full scale invasion of Ukraine, Azot produced nitrogen fertilizers.

Civilians hiding in the Azot chemical plant. April 16, 2022
Marko Djurica / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The Azot industrial zone appears to be the only remaining part of Sievierodonetsk not under Russian control. Russian troops invaded the city in late May and quickly took control of its residential areas. The industrial zone, according to Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday, has come under frequent fire, and communications with the chemical plant’s inhabitants are unstable. The UN has reported that they’re running out of potable water, food, and medical supplies.

The Azot chemical plant has drawn comparisons to the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, where hundreds of civilians and thousands of Ukrainian soldiers took shelter for two months in harsh conditions after Russian troops surrounded the city and began shelling the facility. By May 20, all of the surviving civilians had been evacuated, and the remaining soldiers surrendered.

But there are important differences between Azot and Azovstal. Both were built in the USSR, designed to be functional in both wartime and peacetime, and have large bomb shelters underneath. But the Azot industrial zone is almost twice the size of Azovstal, making it difficult to defend, and the bomb shelters at Azot are less durable than those at Azovstal.

At the same time, Azot, unlike Azovstal, is not blocked off entirely; its industrial zone is adjacent to the city of Lysychansk, which remains under Ukrainian control. The cities are separated by the Siverskyi Donets river, and while the bridges across it have been destroyed, the proximity could make it possible for Ukraine to withdraw its forces (though self-proclaimed LNR officials claim this is impossible) or to continue supplying them (though even this wouldn’t necessarily ensure they can keep defending Azot).

A damaged building in Lysychansk. June 9, 2022
Aris Messinis / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk are the only remaining major cities in the Luhansk region not under Russian control. Both have been subjected to heavy shelling. According to Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday, Sievierodonetsk is less strategically important than Lysychansk, but more politically important, as it’s been the region’s administrative capital ever since the city of Luhansk was captured by the self-proclaimed LNR.

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