FILE - Servicemen of the Donetsk People's Republic militia look at bodies of Ukrainian soldiers placed in plastic bags in a tunnel, part of the Illich Iron & Steel Works Metallurgical Plant, the second largest metallurgical enterprise in Ukraine, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov, File)
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the strategic city of Mariupol on Thursday, even as he ordered his troops not to risk more losses by storming the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the war’s iconic battleground.
Russian troops have besieged the southeastern port city since the early days of the conflict and largely reduced it to ruins. Top officials have repeatedly claimed it was about to fall, but Ukrainian forces have stubbornly held on in the face of overwhelming odds. In recent weeks, they holed up in a sprawling steel plant, as Russian forces pounded the industrial site and repeatedly issued ultimatums ordering their surrender.
But on Thursday, as he has done before, Putin seemed to shift the narrative and declared victory without taking the plant.
“The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” he said in a joint appearance with his defense minister. “Congratulations.”
Ukraine scoffed at the idea that a Russian victory in Mariupol was already achieved.
“This situation means the following — they cannot physically capture Azovstal. They have understood this. They suffered huge losses there,” said Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
By painting the mission as a success even without a head-on storming of the plant, Putin may be seeking to take the focus off the site, which has become a global symbol of defiance. Even without the plant, the Russians appear to have control of the rest of the city and its vital port, though that facility seems to have suffered extensive damage.
The Russian leader said that, for now, he would not risk sending troops into the warren of tunnels under the giant Azovstal plant, instead preferring to isolate the holdouts “so that not even a fly comes through.” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the plant was blocked off, while giving yet another prediction that the site could be taken in days.
Shoigu said about 2,000 Ukrainian troops remained in the site, which has a 24 kilometers (15 miles) of tunnels and bunkers that spread out across about 11 square kilometers (4 square miles). Ukrainian officials said that about 1,000 civilians were also trapped there along with 500 wounded soldier and demanded their release.
Putin’s order may mean that Russian forces are hoping they can wait for the defenders to surrender after running out of food or ammunition. Bombings of the plant could well continue.
Russian-backed separatists in the Mariupol area previously seemed bent on taking every last inch of the city, which holds both strategic and symbolic importance.
Its fall would represent the biggest victory of the war in Ukraine yet, and the scale of suffering in the city on the Azov Sea has made it a worldwide focal point. Its definitive capture would also complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, and allow Putin’s forces to shift their attention to the larger battle for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, where a more important measure of success may lie.
“The Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where the Ukrainians can hold out in the urban centers, but to try and capture territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory,” retired British Rear Admiral Chris Parry said.
Parry called it a change in “operational approach” as Russia tries to learn from its failures in the 8-week-old conflict, which began with expectations of a lightning offensive that would quickly crush Ukraine’s outgunned and outnumbered forces. Instead, Moscow’s forces became bogged down by a stiffer-than-expected resistance with ever mounting casualties and costs.
For weeks now, Russian officials have said capturing the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, is the war’s main goal. Moscow’s forces opened a new phase of the war this week — a deadly drive along a front from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the Azov Sea — to do just that. Detaching the region from the rest of Ukraine would give Putin a badly needed victory.
“They’ve realized if they get sort of held up in these sort of really sticky areas like Mariupol, they’re not going to cover the rest of the ground,” Parry said.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said that Russia likely wants to demonstrate significant successes ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest moment on the annual calendar marking its critical role in winning World War II.
“This could affect how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date,” the ministry said.
In the meantime, Western powers are doubling down on their support of Ukraine, moving to push more military hardware in, heightening geopolitical stakes.
The latest in a long line of Western leaders venturing to Kyiv, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told broadcaster TV2 on Thursday: “One of the most important messages today is that Denmark is considering sending more weapons. That is what is needed.”
Several Western officials have promised similar in recent days.
With global tensions running high, Russia reported the first successful test launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat, on Wednesday. Putin boasted that it can overcome any missile defense system and make those who threaten Russia “think twice.” The head of the Russian state aerospace agency called the launch out of northern Russia “a present to NATO.”
The Pentagon described the test as “routine” and said it wasn’t considered a threat.
On the battlefield, Ukraine said Moscow continued to mount assaults across the east, probing for weak points in Ukrainian defensive lines. Russia said it launched hundreds of missile and air attacks on targets that included concentrations of troops and vehicles.
In a video address, Zelenskyy said the Russians were not “abandoning their attempts to score at least some victory by launching a new, large-scale offensive” to take the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking eastern region that is home to coal mines, metal plants and heavy-equipment factories.
The Luhansk governor said Russian forces control 80% of his region, which is one of two that make up the Donbas. Before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the Kyiv government controlled 60% of the Luhansk region.
Analysts have said the offensive in the east could become a war of attrition as Russia faces Ukraine’s most experienced, battle-hardened troops, who have fought pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas for eight years.
Russia said it presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands for ending the conflict — days after Putin said the talks were at a “dead end.”
Moscow has long demanded Ukraine drop any bid to join NATO. Ukraine has said it would agree to that in return for security guarantees from other countries. Other sources of tension include the status of both the Crimean Peninsula and eastern Ukraine, where the separatists have declared independent republics recognized by Russia.
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