KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to claim victory in the strategic port of Mariupol on Thursday, even as he ordered his troops not to storm the last segment of the Ukrainian resistance on the iconic battlefield of the war .
Russian forces have besieged and largely pulverized the southeastern city since the conflict’s early days — and top officials have repeatedly indicated it was on the verge of falling, but Ukrainian forces stubbornly persisted. In recent weeks, holed up in a sprawling steel factory, Russian troops stormed the industrial site, issuing repeated ultimatums ordering the defenders to surrender.
“The completion of the combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” Putin said. “Getting control of such an important center in the south as Mariupol is a success.”
But the Russian leader said he would not risk sending troops into the maze of tunnels beneath the giant Azovstal factory for the time being, preferring instead to isolate the holdouts that have captivated the world’s attention.” so that not even a fly gets through.” His defense secretary said the factory was shut down, while he gave yet another prediction that the site could be taken within days.
Putin’s order could mean Russian officials hope they can wait for the defenders to surrender after running out of food or ammunition. Bomb attacks on the factory could well continue.
Although Putin already painted the mission to take Mariupol a success, saying the city was “liberated” until the factory falls, he cannot declare a complete victory.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said there are still about 2,000 Ukrainian troops at the factory, which has a labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers stretching for about 11 square kilometers (4 square miles). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said about 1,000 civilians were also detained there.
Russian-backed separatists in the area previously seemed determined to take every last inch of the city, which witnessed some of the war’s most dramatic fighting and whose capture is both strategically and symbolically important.
The magnitude of the suffering in the city on the Sea of Azov has made it a global focal point, and its final fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, completing a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014 took, and Russian troops to relocate elsewhere in the Donbas.
Russian officials now say the main goal of the war is to capture the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland. This week, Moscow’s troops began a new phase of the war, in a deadly drive along a front from the northeastern city of Kharkov to the Sea of Azov. Detaching the region from the rest of Ukraine would give Putin a much-needed victory two months after the war, following the failed attempt to storm the capital Kiev and amid mounting Russian losses.
The British Ministry of Defense said Russia is likely to see significant success ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest moment on the annual calendar that marks its pivotal role in winning World War II.
“This could affect how quickly and vigorously they try to conduct operations leading up to this date,” the ministry said.
Retired British Rear Admiral Chris Parry described Putin’s comments as reflecting a change in “operational approach” as Russia tries to learn from its failures in the eight-week conflict, which changed from initial hopes of a Lightning-fast invasion of a neighboring country in a war of attrition with ever-increasing casualties and costs.
“It seems to me that the Russian agenda now is not to conquer these really difficult places in the urban centers, but to try to conquer territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory,” Parry said. said.
In the meantime, Western powers are doubling down on support for Ukraine and pushing in more military equipment, increasing the geopolitical stakes.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, the latest in a long line of Western leaders to venture to Kiev, said 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 the same in recent days.
With global tensions running high, Russia on Wednesday reported the first successful test launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat. Putin boasted that it can overcome any missile defense system and “think twice” those who threaten Russia. The head of the Russian state aviation organization 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 continues to attack in the east, looking for weaknesses in Ukraine’s defenses. Russia said it has launched hundreds of missiles and airstrikes on targets, including concentrations of troops and vehicles.
The Kremlin’s stated goal is to conquer the Donbas, the largely Russian-speaking eastern region of coal mines, metalworks and heavy equipment factories.
In a video address, Zelenskyy said the Russians are “not giving up their efforts to achieve at least some victory by launching another large-scale offensive”.
The Luhansk governor said Russian forces control 80% of his region, one of two that make up the Donbas. Before Russia invaded on February 24, the Kiev government controlled 60% of the Luhansk region.
Analysts have said the offensive in the east could turn into a war of attrition as Russia faces Ukraine’s most experienced, battle-hardened troops, who spent eight years fighting pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.
Russia said it had presented Ukraine with a draft paper outlining its demands to end the conflict – days after Putin said talks had reached a “dead end”.
Moscow has long demanded that Ukraine drop any bid to join NATO. Ukraine has said it will agree to this in exchange for security guarantees from other countries. Other sources of tension include the status of both the Crimean peninsula, which was occupied by Moscow in 2014, and eastern Ukraine, where separatists have declared independent republics recognized by Russia.
Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Yesica Fisch in Kramatorsk, Ukraine; Danica Kirka in London; and Robert Burns and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP contributors around the world.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine