President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the biggest battle of the Ukraine war on Thursday, declaring the port of Mariupol “liberated” after nearly two months of siege, despite hundreds of defenders still holding out inside a giant steel works.
In a televised meeting with his defence minister inside the Kremlin, Putin said there was no need for a final confrontation with the last defenders who were boxed in after surviving nearly two months of Russia’s siege.
“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary,” he told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised meeting at the Kremlin. “I order you to cancel it.”
“There’s no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” he said. “Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly can get through.”
Shoigu estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained inside the plant. Putin called on them to lay down their weapons and surrender, saying Russia would treat them with respect.
Asked to comment on Russia’s decision to blockade the steel works rather than storm it, Ukraine’s defence ministry spokeswoman said the move testified to Putin’s “schizophrenic tendencies” and gave no further response.
Putin’s declaration of victory lets him claim his first big prize since his forces were driven out of northern Ukraine last month after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Mariupol is the link that Moscow needs to provide a secure connection between territory held by the separatists it backs in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and Crimea, the peninsula it seized in 2014.
It is also the main port of the Donbas, two provinces that Moscow demands Ukraine fully cede to the separatists in what the Kremlin now describes as the war’s main objective.
After failing to capture Kyiv last month and being forced to withdraw from northern Ukraine, Russia regrouped to launch a major new offensive this week in the Donbas, pushing from several directions to try to encircle Ukrainian troops.
Ukraine said Russian forces had failed so far to completely capture Rubizhne, a Donbas town that has been a focus of their advance. The city of Kharkiv, near the Russian supply lines into Donbas, came under heavy bombardment, its mayor said.
British military intelligence said Russian forces were keen to demonstrate significant success by May 9, the anniversary of the allied victory in Europe in World War Two.
Russia calls its incursion a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for an illegal war of aggression.
U.S. President Joe Biden will deliver an update on Ukraine at 9:45 a.m. (1345 GMT) on Thursday as he works to complete a new arms package, which is likely to be a similar size to an $800 million one announced last week, a U.S. official said.