Azov fighter Illia Samoylenko is barricaded in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant. For him and his comrades, there is no surrender to the Russians: captivity means certain death.
Together with his brothers-in-arms from the Azov Regiment and the marines of the 36th Marine Infantry Brigade, they are the last pocket of resistance in occupied Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov.
Much has been written about the Azov Regiment, its ideology, its victories and presence in the Donbas war, and today, its heroic stand in the Azovstal steel mill of Mariupol. Azovstal is the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the devastated port city and it has become a symbol in the broader battle since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, 2022.The fighters have become virtual legends, although we would all like to see these brave men and women alive and well, safely back home amongst their friends and family.
One of these warriors is Illia Samoylenko, recently seen in a press briefing organized by the Azov Regiment holed up in the steel plant in Mariupol. Illia impressed the world with his clear responses and impeccable English. He is an intelligence officer in the Azov Regiment. He has a titanium prosthetic arm and an artificial eye. Here is his story.
Volunteer fighter with Azov
Before war erupted in the Donbas in 2014, Illia Samoylenko was a student of history at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. In 2015, at the tender age of 21, Illia went to war.
“… I understood that as a citizen of Ukraine I should join the army and fight for my country. It’s like in Ancient Greece: ‘Do you want to be a citizen? Do your military service first!’ In 2015, I finally decided to enlist. At that time, the Azov Regiment was defending Mariinka in Donetsk Oblast.”
Illia says that he joined Azov for several reasons. Although the fighters are all very different, with diverse opinions and differing worldviews, they are united by one goal – to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine. By force, if necessary.
In addition, the fighters are highly motivated and extremely well-trained. Illia underlines that Azov soldiers are all very patriotic and many are Ukrainian nationalists, in the positive sense of the word. Azov’s tattoo culture is not imposed; it is a personal decision that each soldier makes on his own.
“I think there’s less bureaucracy and more room for opportunity in the Azov Battalion. We value a soldier’s motivation and his ability and desire to fight, not his position or rank. I climbed the career ladder very quickly. First, I commanded a division; then I was named deputy platoon commander. I also taught and trained recruits.”
Illia says his views coincide with those of most of his brothers-in-arms. This means not beating around the bush, but getting straight to the point. A yes is a yes, and a no is a no. No cutting corners. Some will say that this is a form of radicalism, but it is actually clarity: clarity of thinking, clarity of action.
Active combat in the Donbas war
During a combat mission in the Donbas at the end of 2017, lllia lost his left arm and right eye. He was installing a tripwire when an enemy shell exploded nearby. The blast detonated the device he was holding in his hand.
“My face, my arm, my leg… Some of our guys were nearby and they applied a tourniquet and performed first aid. I realized then how important it was to know basic first aid procedures.”
Right by his carotid artery Illia had a piece of shrapnel which the doctors removed. His right hand looked like it had been through a meat grinder. He spent almost all of 2018 in treatment and rehabilitation. Finally, fitted with a new arm and a new eye, he returned to military service because he had not achieved the goal he had set for himself – to bring the war to a victorious end.
Like most soldiers serving in the Armed Forces in 2014-2019, Illia and his mates feared that Ukraine’s leaders would compromise with the enemy, abandoning part of the occupied territories to Moscow. In September 2019, Illia gave a lengthy interview where he spoke his mind, among other things, about negotiating with and conceding to the enemy.
“If our diplomats agree on some kind of hybrid peace, then all of us, the military, are left out in the cold. We should have our say… because we fought here, shed our blood here, died here. And then they come along and say something like: ‘Well, guys, that’s it. Time to pack up and leave!’
Next come some incomprehensible negotiations and half-hearted decisions. In the meantime, we’re left on the sidelines with no say in the matter. It’s wrong to waste the resources of motivated people. And, looking back, it’s not right to give up and say that those five years were all in vain.”
A mother waits for her son
Illia’s mother is well known in the Ukrainian film community. Alla Samoylenko is one of the most famous casting directors in Ukrainian cinema. She chose and organized work for Ukrainian actors in film projects in Poland, Germany, Bulgaria, Italy, Great Britain, and selected actors to fill the roles in more than 60 films.
Today, not only is Alla Samoylenko profoundly worried about her son, but she is also afraid that the truth about the ongoing resistance in Azovstal will be hidden from Ukrainian society.
“I follow the news closely and I can see how the authorities are avoiding these ‘inconvenient’ issues concerning Azov and Mariupol. I advise everyone posting or commenting on this topic to make a copy of their text in case it’s deleted.
Yes, our people need Heroes! But, our families need their sons, fathers, brothers alive and safe. When I look at Illia and his friends, I know that these people can and must build a new Ukraine. They’re smart, well-educated, free of the Soviet past and mentality, with a keen sense of justice, with a clear picture of the world they want to live in. These men and women bear responsibility for both word and deed. Ukrainian society needs them alive,” she wrote in a recent Facebook post.
Like many Ukrainians worldwide, Alla Samoylenko prays and hopes for a miracle.
The battle for Mariupol
Illia’s fears about a full-scale war with Russia materialized in February when the Azov Battalion and the 36th Marine Infantry Brigade found themselves encircled by Russian troops and artillery.
“Our government failed in its defense of Mariupol. Our troops were not sufficiently prepared for this eventuality.
We received no Javelins, no additional weapons, no vehicles. Support was minimal. We were basically left on our own,” said Samoilenko said during a recent public press conference at Azovstal.
He points out that, from 24 February to 15 April, the defenders eliminated more than 2,500 Russian occupiers and wounded 5,000, which adds up to 15% of enemy losses. This was done without aircraft or artillery support.
“There is a problem. Over the past few years, some government officials have been sabotaging Ukraine’s defense system. We all know that this war didn’t begin on 24 February. We’ve never stopped repeating this. The Ukrainian military wasn’t prepared. Officials, the government… they all just kept getting in the way and sabotaging our attempts to prepare for the Big War.”
Illia underlines that since Mariupol was not prepared for the war, the Azov Battalion took the responsibility for defending the city. There can be no going back now, they say.
But, the fighters barricaded in Azovstal are in a very critical situation; there are many wounded soldiers; there is a severe shortage of food and water. All in all, the remaining soldiers have four options
- First, they can put down their weapons, sit in a corner and wait for the end; “…it will be a slow death from starvation or a quick death from a bomb.”
- Second, they can try to run like cowards, forget about their oath and their duty. However, they are more than 100 kilometers from Ukrainian positions, so it is virtually impossible to break through. “This would be a very poor choice… and shameful too. It would lead to certain death.”
- Third, they can lay down their arms and surrender.
- Fourth, stand and fight! “This is the only way for us to continue living and not be ashamed for the rest of our lives.”
In the end, it is a matter of personal choice, but both the Azov warriors and the marines are united in their will to resist and survive.
“Yes, it’s possible… we can lay down our arms and surrender. But, we all know that the Azov Regiment has no chance of surviving if we are taken prisoner. Surrendering is unacceptable, because we can’t give the enemy this satisfaction… for the soldiers of the Azov Regiment, captivity means certain death,” concludes Illia.
During the press briefing, Illia also informed that:
- Bureaucracy prevented the Ukrainian military from effectively preparing the country’s military sector, and in particular Mariupol, which everyone knew would be targeted in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion.
- The defenders in Mariupol are in touch with headquarters and the Presidential Office and were ordered to hold their poision.
- Some politicians claimed that the Azov commander was obstructing the evacuation of civilians.
- Azov cannot confirm the evacuation of all civilians from Azovstal, as they do not have the technical means to clear the debris and check other underground areas.
The faces of Azovstal (then and now)
[editorial]The Azov Battalion
Russian propaganda calls them neo-Nazis and fascists; Russian TV channels present them as bloodthirsty killers committing horrible crimes on civilians. The Azov Battalion is well known to all Ukrainians for its heroic resistance and fighting spirit at Ilovaisk and Mariupol in 2014 and again in Mariupol today.
The Azov Battalion was created as an all-volunteer military unit at the beginning of the Donbas war in May 2014. Azov fighters were instrumental in the recapture of Mariupol from pro-Russian militants in June 2014. Azov has since been incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine.
It should be noted that Azov is the only volunteer group from 2014 that did not disintegrate or split into separate units.
The Azov Battalion includes an infantry unit, a tank company and an artillery division. The average age of fighters on the front line is 30 years. The fighters are highly motivated and fiercely patriotic.[/editorial]
Azov press briefing May 10, 2022 (in English, 1hr38)
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