On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to “blockade” the last remaining Ukrainian fighters at the Mariupol steel plant as he claimed Moscow had conquered the port city.
After two months of fighting, Putin hailed the “liberation” of Mariupol – a victory that would mark a major success – but Ukraine rejected the announcement, saying it only underlined the resistance of the steel mills.
The last group of Ukrainian fighters, along with some 1,000 civilians, held their ground in the underpass of the Azovstal complex.
During a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin told him to congratulate Russian troops on the capture of the city, an important goal linking separatist-held areas in the eastern Donbas region with occupied territories in southern Ukraine.
But Shoigu, while saying Russian troops had taken control of the Mariupol residential area, acknowledged that his forces were still fighting at the Azov Starr steel plant.
The Russian president told Shoigu not to attack the factory, but to “block it off so that flies don’t get in”.
On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden said it was “questionable” whether Russia took control of the port city, adding that “there is no evidence yet that Mariupol has completely fallen”.
Biden also urged Putin to allow civilians to leave the besieged city.
“He should allow the humanitarian corridor to let the people out of that steel mill and other places buried under the rubble,” he said. “In this case, any head of state would do so.”
Commenting on Putin’s claim of victory in Mariupol, Oleksi Arestovich, a senior adviser to the Ukrainian president’s office, said: “This means: they cannot occupy Yazovstadt.”
He added: “This premature declaration of victory does not wait for any one [Orthodox] Easter [this weekend] or May 9 [the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany], indicating that the Russians understand the lack of prospects for their latest military operations at this stage of the war. “
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Azovstadt was an “independent target” and that blocking the remaining Ukrainian fighter jets there did not mean Russia had changed its invasion plans.
Seizing Mariupol, a key port for Ukrainian metal exports, would allow Moscow to link the annexed Crimean peninsula to the Russian mainland, and even if the invasion continues, Putin could claim he has achieved his main goal.
Shoigu also claimed that Mariupol was the “capital” of the far-right nationalist Azov Battalion, giving Russia a chance to say it had achieved its vaguely defined goal of “denazification of Ukraine.”
Kyiv said the city was nearly destroyed, with at least 20,000 civilians killed in heavy artillery, missile and long-range bomber strikes by Russia.
Kyiv has been finding safe passage for the remaining fighters and civilians hiding in the ground, which are said to include children, the elderly and the wounded.
Ukraine has offered to send representatives to the city to negotiate the withdrawal of troops and civilians.
Sviatoslav Paramara, deputy commander of the Mariupol paramilitary Azov battalion, said in a video on Wednesday that fighters in the complex wanted to evacuate the wounded and take away the bodies of the dead and put They are honorably buried in territory not under Russian control.