President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the biggest battle of the Ukraine war on Thursday, declaring the port of Mariupol “liberated” after nearly two months of siege, despite hundreds of defenders still holding out inside a giant steel works.
In a televised meeting with his defence minister inside the Kremlin, Putin said there was no need for a final confrontation with the last defenders who were boxed in after surviving nearly two months of Russia’s siege.
“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary,” he told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised meeting at the Kremlin. “I order you to cancel it.”
“There’s no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” he said. “Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly can get through.”
Shoigu estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained inside the plant. Putin called on them to lay down their weapons and surrender, saying Russia would treat them with respect.
Asked to comment on Russia’s decision to blockade the steel works rather than storm it, Ukraine’s defence ministry spokeswoman said the move testified to Putin’s “schizophrenic tendencies” and gave no further response.
Putin’s declaration of victory lets him claim his first big prize since his forces were driven out of northern Ukraine last month after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Mariupol, once home to 400,000 people, has been the scene of by far the worst fighting of the war and its worst humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands of civilians cut off for nearly two months under Russian siege and bombardment.
Journalists who reached it during the siege found streets littered with corpses, nearly all buildings destroyed, and residents huddled freezing in cellars, venturing out to cook scraps on makeshift stoves or to bury bodies in gardens.
Two incidents in particular became symbolic of what Kyiv and the West call Russian war crimes – the bombing of a maternity hospital and, a week later, of a theatre with hundreds of civilians in the basement. Moscow denies targeting civilians, and, without evidence, says those incidents were faked.
Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians have died in Mariupol. It says some have been buried in mass graves, others removed from the streets by Russian forces using mobile cremation trucks to incinerate bodies. The United Nations and Red Cross say the civilian toll is still unknowable, but at least in the thousands.
The intensified Russian campaign to seize large swathes of eastern Ukraine has further diminished the prospects of stop-start peace talks producing any rapid agreement to end the war.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was still waiting for Kyiv’s response to a proposal it had handed over.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday that he had not seen or heard about the document that the Kremlin said it had sent.
Shoigu told Putin that Russia had killed more than 4,000 Ukrainian troops in its campaign to take Mariupol and that 1,478 had given themselves up. Those figures could not be verified. Two of those who surrendered are British.
Azovstal is one of the biggest metallurgical facilities in Europe, covering 11 sq km, with huge buildings, underground bunkers and tunnels.
Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said an agreed humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the factory had not worked as planned, blaming Russian forces. She said 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers needed to be brought out immediately.
On Tuesday, a commander of the far-right nationalist Azov battalion, a former militia now incorporated into Ukraine’s national guard, rejected Russia’s call to surrender but urged that the civilians be rescued.
“We do not accept the conditions set down by the Russian Federation on giving up our weapons and our defenders giving themselves up as prisoners,” Svyatoslav Palamar said in a video message.
Russia has blocked all efforts by Ukraine to send aid to Mariupol or to send buses to evacuate civilians to Ukrainian-controlled territory, and Kyiv accuses it of forcibly deporting tens of thousands of residents to Russia.
Moscow says Russia has taken in 140,000 civilians from Mariupol in humanitarian evacuations. Kyiv says some were deported by force, in what would be a war crime.
Mariupol is the link that Moscow needs to provide a secure connection between territory held by the separatists it backs in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and Crimea, the peninsula it seized in 2014.
It is also the main port of the Donbas, two provinces that Moscow demands Ukraine fully cede to the separatists in what the Kremlin now describes as the war’s main objective.
After failing to capture Kyiv last month and being forced to withdraw from northern Ukraine, Russia regrouped to launch a major new offensive this week in the Donbas, pushing from several directions to try to encircle Ukrainian troops.
Ukraine said Russian forces had failed so far to completely capture Rubizhne, a Donbas town that has been a focus of their advance. The city of Kharkiv, near the Russian supply lines into Donbas, came under heavy bombardment, its mayor said.
British military intelligence said Russian forces were keen to demonstrate significant success by May 9, the anniversary of the allied victory in Europe in World War Two.
Russia calls its incursion a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for an illegal war of aggression.
U.S. President Joe Biden will deliver an update on Ukraine at 9:45 a.m. (1345 GMT) on Thursday as he works to complete a new arms package, which is likely to be a similar size to an $800 million one announced last week, a U.S. official said