The move to claim victory — while Shoigu estimated “around 2,000″ Ukrainian troops remain in the sprawling Azovstal Iron and Steel Works — appears to sidestep the difficulty and danger of seizing the complex, which occupies four square miles and has a sprawling subterranean network.
Ukraine for days has rebuffed Russia’s demands to surrender, with a commander of the troops at Azovstal Iron and Steel Works telling The Washington Post they would fight until the bitter end.
Putin’s claim of victory comes as Western countries note that Russia is likely seeking to accelerate its campaign ahead of its annual “Victory Day” celebrations. Russia’s premier national holiday, celebrated on May 9 in the country, marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII.
Britain said Thursday that Russia aimed to demonstrate “significant successes” on the battleground before May 9; Western defense officials say Putin is determined to take Mariupol and make headway in Donbas, the region of eastern Ukraine bordering Russia, by that date, The Washington Post previously reported.
Putin’s apparent decision to turn instead to a blockade of the Ukrainians in the plant — saying that the plant should be blocked off so “that even a fly could not get through” — could allow the Kremlin to declare a quick victory in Mariupol, even though it has not completely fallen, and free up resources for campaigns it is launching elsewhere in Ukraine.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Thursday that Russian claims of victory in Mariupol are premature. “They cannot physically take Azovstal, they have understood; they have experienced huge losses there,” he said. “Our defenders are continuing to hold on to it.”
Arestovych speculated that Russia may not have the resources to storm Azovstal, having moved some of its troops away from Mariupol and toward the border of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where a new offensive is underway. “These preliminary announcements of victories … show that the Russians have become aware of the futility of their latest active operation at this stage of the war,” Arestovych said.
For weeks, Russian forces have bombarded the city, which had a prewar population of about 440,000, leaving it largely destroyed. Shoigu estimated Russia will now need only a few days to wrap up military action at the plant. Mariupol has important practical and symbolic significance for Moscow too, with any capture allowing for the completion of a land bridge to the annexed Crimea Peninsula from the Russian mainland.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk demanded “an urgent humanitarian corridor” be put into place for the Azovstal plant on Thursday, saying there were about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers holing up there.
Late Wednesday, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Kyiv was prepared to hold a “special round of negotiations” in Mariupol, in an apparent last-ditch effort to negotiate for the evacuation of its remaining fighters and civilians.
The offer has so far been rebuffed by Moscow, according to Zelensky, who has also floated the idea of exchanging Russian military prisoners for the release of its civilians in Mariupol. Zelensky said Wednesday that “we are ready to exchange our people for military prisoners. We are ready for any formats for exchange.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of Mariupol Vadym Boychenko called for a cease-fire around the Azovstal plant on Thursday, saying: “The situation is very difficult … The boys [Ukrainian fighters] want only one thing: for there to be a cease-fire.”
Many in Mariupol, a city in Ukraine’s southeast Donetsk region, have traditionally harbored sympathies with nearby Russia, maintaining close cultural and linguistic ties. But Boychenko said Russian forces were “ruining” the city and “destroying our state.”
The commander of the soldiers making a last stand at the Azovstal complex, in audio messages to The Washington Post on Wednesday, said that people were being forced to “rot” in the plant, which he also said was being bombed and “torn up by artillery.”
“They’re dying underground — the wounded and the living there,” Maj. Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade said.
Russia, for its part, said that it had created a path to safety for civilians at the steel plant but that no one had used the route.
Fighting is continuing to intensify in Ukraine’s east after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this week that Moscow would seek 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 forces now control 80 percent of the area, part of the embattled Donbas.
Elsewhere, Russian forces were advancing toward the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to Britain’s Defense Ministry, who said the city was facing “persistent” rocket attacks. In Ukraine’s second-city, Kharkiv, the governor said Thursday the area was being bombarded by Russian rocket launchers and shelling.
Haidai also said that Russian forces were seeking a foothold in the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna after gaining control of the city of Kreminna. In Popasna, which has seen heavy fighting, Haidai said Thursday more than 100 people had died as Russian forces control about half of the city. The Washington Post could not independently verify that claim.
— Annabelle Timsit, Lateshia Beachum and Paulina Villegas contributed to this report.