Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops not to storm the last Ukrainian fortress in the besieged city of Mariupol on Thursday, but to blockade it “so that not even a fly could get through”.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the rest of the city behind the sprawling Azovstal Steelworks, where Ukrainian troops were stationed, had been “liberated” – as Russian officials describe the areas of Ukraine they have seized. Putin praised this as a “success”.
But leaving the work in Ukrainian hands deprives the Russians of the ability to declare complete victory in Mariupol, which saw some of the most dramatic fighting of the war and whose capture has both strategic and symbolic significance.
The scale of the suffering there has made it a global flashpoint, and its eventual fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, and free Russian troops to advance elsewhere in the Donbass.
Shoigu said the facility was “safely blocked”.
Putin’s and Shoigu’s comments seemed to reflect a shift in strategy in Mariupol, where the Russians previously seemed determined to take every inch of the city. But it wasn’t clear what it would mean in practical terms.
Ukrainian officials did not comment on the latest comments, but previously said that four buses carrying civilians managed to flee the city after several unsuccessful attempts. Thousands more remain the city, much of which has been reduced to smoking ruins in a nearly two-month siege with over 20,000 people believed dead.
Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Vereshchuk said another attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol would be made on Thursday – although it was not clear how the recent comments would affect that.
In Kyiv, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen became the latest European leaders to show their support with a visit to the capital. They were scheduled to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who warned in a video address overnight that the Russians “would not give up their attempts to gain at least some victory by launching a new, large-scale offensive.”
“The West stands together to support the Ukrainian people,” Danish Prime Minister Frederiksen said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said it had presented a draft of its demands to end the war, and the West rushed to supply Ukraine with heavier weapons to counter the Russian push to conquer the industrial east.
The UK Ministry of Defense said in an assessment that Russia is likely to want to show significant achievements ahead of its annual Victory Day celebrations on May 9. “This could impact how quickly and vigorously they attempt to conduct operations leading up to that date.”
As fears grew for the fate of civilians in Mariupol, Kiev regional police said on Thursday that two mass graves containing nine bodies had been discovered in the town of Borodyanka, northwest of the capital. The findings added thousands of civilians reported to have been killed by Russian forces accused of widespread abuse of Ukrainians.
The head of the Kyiv regional police, Andriy Nebytov, said two women and a teenager were among the “civilians killed by the Russian occupiers”.
“I want to emphasize that these people are civilians. The Russian military deliberately shot civilians who offered no resistance and posed no threat,” Nebytov said, adding that some of the victims appeared to have been tortured.
Amid global tensions, Russia reported the first successful test launch of a new type of ICBM, the Sarmat. President Vladimir Putin boasted that it can defeat any missile defense system and “rethink” those who threaten Russia. The head of Russia’s state aerospace agency called the launch from northern Russia “a gift to NATO.”
The Pentagon described the test as “routine” and said it posed no threat.
On the battlefield, Ukraine said Moscow is continuing to launch attacks in the east and is looking for weaknesses in Ukrainian defenses. Russia said it launched hundreds of missile and air strikes on targets, including concentrations of troops and vehicles.
The Kremlin’s declared aim is to conquer the Donbass, the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern region that is home to coal mines, metal works and heavy machinery factories. A severance from the rest of Ukraine would give Putin a much-needed victory two months into the war after a botched attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces were advancing from base areas in Donbass towards Kramatorsk, which continues to suffer from sustained missile attacks.
The Luhansk governor said Russian forces control 80 percent of its region, which is one of two that make up Donbass. Before Russia invaded on February 24, the Kiev government controlled 60 percent of the Luhansk region.
Governor Serhiy Haidai said that the Russians, after capturing the small town of Kreminna, are now threatening the towns of Rubizhne and Popasna. He urged all residents to evacuate immediately.
“The occupiers only control parts of these cities and cannot penetrate into the centers,” Haidai said on the messaging app Telegram.
Analysts have said the offensive in the east could turn into a war of attrition as Russia faces Ukraine’s most experienced and battle-hardened troops who have been fighting pro-Moscow separatists in Donbass for eight years.
Russia said it had submitted a draft document to Ukraine outlining its demands to end the conflict – days after Putin said talks were at a “dead end”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “The ball is in their hands, we are waiting for an answer.” He did not provide any details on the draft and it was not clear when it was sent or whether it would be sent to the Ukrainians, who sent theirs last month presented their own demands, offered something new.
Zelenskyy said he had neither seen nor heard of the proposal, although one of his top advisers said the Ukrainian side was studying it.
Moscow has long urged Ukraine to drop any bid to join NATO. Ukraine has said it would agree to this in exchange for security guarantees from other countries. Other sources of tension include the status of the Crimean peninsula, captured by Moscow in 2014, and eastern Ukraine, where separatists have declared independent republics recognized by Russia.
Earlier this week, Ukraine said the Russians dropped heavy bombs to level the remains of the Azovstal Steel Plant.
According to a Russian estimate, a few thousand Ukrainian soldiers remained in the factory and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, which stretched over about 11 square kilometers (4 sq mi). Zelenskyy said about 1,000 civilians were also trapped.
A Ukrainian who was believed to be inside the facility posted a Facebook video calling on world leaders to help evacuate people from the facility, saying: “We have more than 500 wounded soldiers and Hundreds of civilians with us, including women and children.”
The officer identified himself as Serhiy Volynskyy of the 36th Naval Brigade and warned: “This may be our last roll call. We may only have a few days or hours.” The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
Russia has repeatedly given the defenders ultimatums to surrender, but the Ukrainians have ignored them.
Altogether, more than 100,000 people were believed to be trapped in Mariupol with little or no food, water, medicine, or warmth. The city’s pre-war population was 400,000.
A Zelenskyi aide, Mykhailo Podolyak, said on Twitter that he and other Ukrainian negotiators are ready to hold unconditional talks to save the lives of Mariupol’s captured defenders and civilians. There was no immediate reaction from Russia.
Elsewhere, some residents of the eastern city of Kharkiv have been living in basements for weeks, trying to shelter from Russian shelling. With no running water, gas, or electricity, they collect rainwater and cook over open fires, burning debris from ruined wooden buildings.
In one neighborhood, they sought safety in a school basement – using desks, tables and chairs to make beds. More than 300 people slept there in the first days of the war, but most left for safer places and only a few dozen stayed.
A woman stirred a large pot of thin vegetable soup and said volunteers had brought canned cabbage, turnips and beans. “We mixed everything together and made borscht,” said Natascha, who only gave her first name.
As Russia funneled troops and equipment into the Donbas, Western nations rushed to ramp up the flow of military supplies to Kyiv for this new phase of the war — likely involving trench warfare, long-range artillery strikes, and tank battles in relatively open terrain.
US President Joe Biden was scheduled to announce plans to send more military aid to Ukraine on Thursday, according to a US official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Zelenskyi said Ukraine’s western allies “understood our needs better,” adding that Ukraine is receiving new shipments of western weapons “now, when Russia is trying to step up its attacks, not in weeks or a month.”
Putin, meanwhile, boasted that the Sarmat missile had “no equivalent in the world.” The Sarmat is eventually set to replace the NATO-built missile, codenamed Satan, as the main component of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
It will “give thought to those who, in the heat of frantic, aggressive rhetoric, attempt to threaten our country,” Putin said.
https://www.independent.ie/news/putin-tells-forces-not-to-storm-ukraine-holdout-in-mariupol-41573385.html Putin instructs the armed forces not to storm the Ukrainian base in Mariupol