President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia had seized Ukraine’s Mariupol even as his defense minister said more than 2,000 opposing troops remain holed up in an industrial complex in the strategic southern port city.
“Taking control of such an important center in the South as Mariupol is a success,” Putin said in a televised meeting Thursday with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Mariupol would be the biggest city yet taken by Russia in its two-month invasion and is key to asserting control over the Donbas region and linking it by land with Crimea.
But after nearly two months of laying siege to the city and facing the prospect of a longer and deadlier standoff, Putin ordered Shoigu to call off the storming of the Azovstal steel works, saying it would save the lives of Russian troops. “Seal that industrial area off so that even a fly can’t get through,” he said, calling on remaining Ukrainian troops at the plant to surrender, something they’ve repeatedly refused to do.
Ukraine demanded Russia allow a humanitarian corridor to evacuate Azovstal Thursday. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said there are about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers there.
Russia’s claim of victory came a day after the Ukrainian marine brigade commander defending Azovstal warned that his forces were heavily outnumbered and “we are probably facing our last days, if not hours” in the city devastated by Russian bombardment.
After failing early in the war to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Russian troops have regrouped for an offensive in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region that could allow them to take control of territory and form a land bridge to Crimea, the peninsula Putin annexed in 2014.
The battle for Mariupol was fiercely fought from the start and increased in significance and intensity as Russia’s assault on Kyiv about 630 km (390 miles) to the north became bogged down. Many troops withdrawn from around the capital in recent weeks are being redeployed to Donbas.
Shoigu didn’t indicate how many troops would need to remain in Mariupol to seal off the steel plant. He said Ukraine had just over 8,000 troops in the city just before the siege.
It isn’t known how many civilians died in the city, but Ukrainian authorities estimated the civilian death toll at more than 20,000. The attack destroyed much of the city, with more than 100,000 residents trapped without power, heat and water. Amid some of the worst carnage of the war, bodies were buried in common graves or left in the streets.
The final days saw high drama as Russian forces split the remaining defenders into small pockets centered on the port, the former Azovmash train carriage factory and two massive steel mills. Russian state television reported surrenders and showed videos of two captured British fighters who had been fighting alongside Ukrainian marines in Mariupol.
By the end, the only holdouts remained in Azovstal, a steel plant with an extensive network of bunkers and tunnels. Russia’s military used strategic bombers to unleash heavy munitions on the factory, before issuing an ultimatum to surrender by the morning of April 17 or be killed.
“It hasn’t happened in the history of Europe since World War II that a city is reduced to ashes, destroyed completely,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address to the Greek parliament April 7. “The Russian military destroyed everything.”
Social media have been awash with grim images of Mariupol’s shattered center, shown side-by-side with pictures taken before the war, when the city of more than 450,000 enjoyed a minor investment boom as its parks and infrastructure were renovated.
Interviewed in January, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said he had aimed to turn the city into a tourist center and showcase for residents of the self-declared separatist Donetsk People’s Republic – just 24 km away – to persuade them of the benefits of returning to Ukraine. Like most people in Mariupol at the time, he was confident there would be no invasion by Russia.
Speaking to the Russian state news service Tass on April 8, as Mariupol’s defense began to crumble, the new Kremlin-appointed Mayor Konstantin Ivashchenko said he’d consider using Ukrainian prisoners of war to rebuild the city. Such a move would echo Russia’s post-World War II use of captured Germans for reconstruction.