The move to claim victory — while Shoigu estimates that “about 2,000” Ukrainian troops remain in the sprawling Azovstal iron and steel plant — appears to circumvent the difficulty and danger of getting the complex, which spans four square miles and a vast underground network has to be bypassed.
Ukraine has for days rejected Russia’s demand to surrender, with a commander of troops at Azovstal Iron and Steel Works telling The Washington Post they would fight to the bitter end.
How a steel factory in Mariupol became a mainstay for the city’s resistance
Putin’s victory claim comes as Western nations note that Russia is likely trying to show “significant success” on the battlefield in the days leading up to its annual “Victory Day” celebrations.
Russia’s main national holiday, celebrated in the country on May 9, marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. The theme could see a resurgence in Russia this year during the war as the Kremlin claims it invaded its neighbor to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine”.
What Victory Day means for Russian identity
Putin’s apparent decision to turn instead to a blockade of Ukrainians at the factory — saying the factory must be blocked so “not even a fly can get through” — could allow the Kremlin rapid victory in Mariupol, though it hasn’t fallen completely, and frees up resources for campaigns it launches elsewhere in Ukraine.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said on Thursday that Russia’s claims to victory in Mariupol are premature. “They can’t physically take Azovstal, they got it; they suffered huge losses there,” he said. “Our defenders are sticking to it.”
Arestovych speculated that Russia may not have the resources to storm Azovstal, as it has moved some of its troops from Mariupol to the border of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where a new offensive is underway. “These preliminary victories … show that the Russians have become aware of the futility of their last active operation at this stage of the war,” Arestovych said.
For weeks, Russian troops bombed the city, which had a pre-war population of about 440,000, largely destroying it. Shoigu estimated that Russia now only needs a few more days to complete military action at the factory. Mariupol also has important practical and symbolic significance for Moscow, with each conquest allowing for the completion of a land bridge to the annexed Crimean peninsula from the Russian mainland.
Mariupol fighters ‘die underground’ in steel factory, says commander
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk demanded on Thursday that “an urgent humanitarian corridor” be built in front of the plant in Azovstal, saying there were about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers there.
In late Wednesday, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Kiev was willing to hold a “special round of negotiations” in Mariupol, in an apparently last-ditch effort to negotiate the evacuation of the remaining fighters and civilians.
The offer has so far been rejected by Moscow, said Zelensky, who has also raised the idea of exchanging Russian military prisoners for the release of its citizens in Mariupol. Zelensky said on Wednesday that “we are ready to exchange our people for military prisoners. We are ready for all formats for exchange.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of Mariupol Vadym Boychenko on Thursday called for a ceasefire around the Azovstal plant, saying: “The situation is very difficult … The guys [Ukrainian fighters] want only one thing: that there be a ceasefire.”
Many in Mariupol, a city in the Donetsk region of southeastern Ukraine, have traditionally sympathized with nearby Russia and maintain close cultural and linguistic ties. But Boychenko said Russian troops are “ruining” the city and “destroying our state”.
The commander of the soldiers who took a last stand at the Azovstal complex said in audio messages to The Washington Post on Wednesday that people were being forced to “rot” at the factory, which he said was also bombed and “torn by artillery.”
“They die underground – the wounded and the living there,” said Major Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade.
Russia, for its part, said it had created a pathway to safety for civilians at the steel plant, but no one had used the route.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine continues to intensify after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this week that Moscow would pursue the “complete liberation” of Donetsk and Luhansk as part of the “next phase” of its war in Ukraine. The governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said Russian troops now control 80 percent of the area that is part of the disputed Donbas.
Elsewhere, Russian troops advanced toward the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to to the British Ministry of Defence, who said the city was dealing with “ongoing” rocket attacks. In Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, the governor said on Thursday that the area was being bombed by Russian rocket launchers and shelling.
Haidai also said Russian troops sought a foothold in the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna after capturing the city of Kreminna. In Popasna, where the fighting has been fierce, Haidai said on Thursday that more than 100 people were killed when Russian forces took control of about half of the city. The Washington Post was unable to independently verify that claim.
— Annabelle Timsit, Lateshia Beachum and Paulina Villegas contributed to this report.