Putin cancels plans to storm Ukraine’s last stronghold in Mariupol

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his forces not to storm the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged port city of Mariupol – the sprawling Azovstal steelworks – telling his troops to block it “in order that not even a fly can escape”.

Putin said storming the facility, with its network of underground tunnels, would be “impractical”. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians took refuge there.

Its defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the rest of the city beyond the factory had been “liberated” – a term Russian officials use to refer to areas of Ukraine they have seized. . Putin hailed this as a “success”.

But leaving the factory in Ukrainian hands deprives the Russians of the chance to declare complete victory in Mariupol, which has seen some of the most dramatic fighting of the war and whose capture has both strategic and symbolic significance. The scale of suffering there has made it a global focal point, and its eventual downfall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, and free Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbass.

Shoigu said the plant was “locked down securely”.

Putin and Shoigu’s comments appeared to reflect a shift in strategy in Mariupol, which the Russians previously seemed determined to take every inch of. But what that would mean in practice was unclear.

Ukrainian officials did not comment on the latest remarks, but said earlier that four buses carrying civilians managed to escape the city after several failed attempts. Thousands more remain in the city, much of which was reduced to smoking ruin during a nearly two-month siege, with more than 20,000 people dead.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said another attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol would be made on Thursday, although it was unclear how the latest 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 by visiting the capital. They were due to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who warned in a video address overnight that the Russians were “not giving up on their attempts to achieve at least one victory by launching a new full-scale offensive”.

“The West stands together in support of the Ukrainian people,” Frederiksen, Denmark’s prime minister, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said it had submitted a draft of its demands to end the war, and the West rushed to supply Ukraine with heavier weapons to counter the new Russian will. to take over the industrial East.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in an assessment that Russia is likely to want to demonstrate significant success ahead of its annual Victory Day celebrations on May 9. “It could affect how quickly and how strongly they try to conduct operations as we approach that date,” he said.

As fears grew for the fate of civilians in Mariupol, Kyiv regional police announced on Thursday that two mass graves with nine bodies had been discovered in the town of Borodyanka, northwest of the capital. The findings add to the thousands of civilians believed to have been killed by Russian forces, who have been accused of massive abuses against Ukrainians.

Kyiv Regional Police Chief Andriy Nebytov said two women and a teenage boy were among “civilians killed by Russian occupiers”.

“I want to emphasize that these people are civilians. The Russian army deliberately fired on civilians who offered no resistance and posed no threat,” Nebytov said, adding that some of the victims had apparently been tortured.

As global tensions run high, Russia announced the first successful test launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat. Putin boasted that he could defeat any missile defense system and make those who threaten Russia “think twice”. 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 was not considered a threat.

On the battlefield, Ukraine said Moscow continued to mount assaults across the east, probing weak spots in Ukraine’s defensive lines. Russia said it launched hundreds of missile and air attacks on targets including concentrations of troops and vehicles.

The Kremlin’s stated goal is the capture of Donbass, the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern region home to coal mines, metallurgical plants and heavy equipment factories. Detaching it from the rest of Ukraine would give Putin a much-needed victory two months into the war, after the failed attempt to storm the capital, kyiv.

The British Ministry of Defense said Russian forces were advancing from staging areas in Donbas towards Kramatorsk, which continues to suffer from persistent rocket attacks.

The governor of Luhansk said that Russian forces control 80% of his region, which is one of the two that make up Donbass. Before the Russian invasion on February 24, the kyiv government controlled 60% of the Luhansk region.

Governor Serhiy Haidai said the Russians, having taken 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, unable to enter the centers,” Haidai said on the Telegram messaging app.

Analysts said the offensive in the east could become a war of attrition as Russia takes on the most experienced and battle-hardened Ukrainian troops, who have fought pro-Moscow separatists in Donbass for eight years.

Russia said it presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands to end the conflict – days after Putin said the talks were at an “impasse”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the ball is in their court, we are waiting for an answer.” He gave no details about the project, and it was unclear when it was sent or if it offered anything new to Ukrainians, who made their own demands last month.

Zelenskyy said he had not seen or heard of the proposal, although one of his top advisers said the Ukrainian side was considering it.

Moscow has long called on Ukraine to drop any NATO candidacy. Ukraine said it would agree to this in exchange for security guarantees from other countries. Other sources of tension relate to both the status of the Crimean peninsula, seized by Moscow in 2014, and eastern Ukraine, where separatists have declared independent republics recognized by Russia.

Earlier this week, Ukraine said the Russians had dropped heavy bombs to level what was left of the Azovstal steelworks.

A few thousand Ukrainian soldiers, according to the Russians’ estimate, remained in the factory and its maze of tunnels and bunkers spread over some 4 square miles. Zelenskyy said around 1,000 civilians were also trapped.

A Ukrainian man apparently in the factory posted a video on Facebook urging world leaders to help evacuate people from the factory, saying, “We have over 500 wounded soldiers and hundreds of civilians with us, including women and children.

The officer identified himself as Serhiy Volynskyy of the 36th Marine Brigade and warned, “This may be our last call. We may only have a few days or a few hours left. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.

Russia repeatedly issued ultimatums to the defenders to surrender, but the Ukrainians ignored them.

More than 100,000 people in total are believed to be trapped in Mariupol with little or no food, water, medicine or heat. The city’s pre-war population was 400,000.

An adviser to Zelenskyy, Mykhailo Podolyak, said on Twitter that he and other Ukrainian negotiators were ready to hold unconditional talks to save the lives of trapped Mariupol defenders and civilians. There was no immediate response from Russia.

Elsewhere, some residents of the eastern city of Kharkiv have been living in basements for weeks, trying to protect themselves from Russian shelling. Without running water, gas or electricity, they collect rainwater and cook on open fires, burning debris from destroyed wooden buildings.

In one neighborhood, they sought safety in a school basement – using desks, tables and chairs to fashion beds. More than 300 people slept there during the first days of the war, but most have moved on to safer places, and only a few dozen remain.

As Russia has funneled troops and equipment into the Donbass, Western nations have rushed to increase the flow of military supplies to kyiv for this new phase of the war – likely to involve trench warfare, attacks from long-range artillery and tank battles in relatively open terrain.

President Joe Biden was due to announce Thursday his intention to send more military aid to Ukraine, according to a US official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s Western allies “understand our needs better,” adding that Ukraine was receiving new shipments of Western weapons “now, as Russia tries to step up its attacks, not weeks or weeks from now.” in a month”.

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