KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the battle for Mariupol on Thursday, even as he ordered his troops not to risk more losses by storming the giant steel plant containing the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the city.
Instead, he directed his forces to seal off the Azovstal plant “so that not even a fly comes through.”
Russian troops have bombarded the southeastern port city since the early days of the conflict and largely reduced it to ruins. Top officials have repeatedly claimed it was about to fall, but Ukrainian forces have stubbornly held on.
In recent weeks, a few thousand defenders, by Russia’s estimate, holed up in the labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers at the sprawling steel plant, as Russian forces pounded the site and repeatedly issued ultimatums ordering their surrender.
But on Thursday, as he has done before, Putin seemed to shift the narrative and declared victory without taking the plant.
“The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” he said in an appearance with his defense minister. “Congratulations.”
Ukraine scoffed at the idea that a Russian victory in Mariupol was already achieved.
“This situation means the following: They cannot physically capture Azovstal. They have understood this. They suffered huge losses there,” said Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
By painting the mission as a success, Putin may be seeking to take the focus off the plant, which has become a global symbol of defiance. Even without the plant, the Russians appear to have control of the rest of the city and its vital port, though that facility seems to have been extensively damaged.
The capture of Mariupol would represent the Kremlin’s biggest victory of the war in Ukraine yet. It would help Moscow secure more of the coastline, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and enable Putin to shift more forces to the larger battle for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
Russia Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said about 2,000 Ukrainian troops remained at the steel plant, which has 24 kilometers (15 miles) of tunnels and bunkers spread out across about 11 square kilometers (4 square miles). Ukrainian officials said about 1,000 civilians were also trapped there along with 500 wounded soldiers.
Shoigu said the site was blocked off and predicted it could be taken in days.
“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial area pointless. I order to abort it,” Putin responded, saying he was concerned about ”preserving the life and health of our soldiers and officers.”
“There is 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 comes through.”
Putin’s order may mean that Russian forces are hoping they can wait for the defenders to surrender after running out of food or ammunition. The bombardment of the plant could well continue.
All told, more than 100,000 people were believed trapped with little or no food, water, heat or medicine in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of about 430,000.
The city has seized worldwide attention as the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war, including deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her country and others are pressuring Russia to allow civilians out of Mariupol and to stop striking potential evacuation routes.
Four buses with civilians managed to escape the city on Wednesday after several unsuccessful attempts, according to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
“The Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where the Ukrainians can hold out in the urban centers, but to try and capture territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory,” retired British Rear Adm. Chris Parry said.
Parry called it a change in “operational approach” as Russia tries to learn from its failures in the 8-week-old conflict, which began with expectations of a lightning offensive that would crush Ukraine’s outgunned and outnumbered forces and capture Kyiv. Instead, Moscow’s troops became bogged down by unexpectedly tenacious resistance with ever-mounting casualties and retreated from the capital.
For weeks now, Russian officials have said capturing the Donbas, Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking industrial east, is the war’s main goal. Moscow’s forces opened a new phase of the war this week — a deadly drive along a 300-mile (480-kilometer) front from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the Azov Sea — to do just that.
“They’ve realized if they get sort of held up in these sort of really sticky areas like Mariupol, they’re not going to cover the rest of the ground,” Parry said.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said that Russia probably wants to demonstrate significant successes ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest day on the Russian calendar, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
“This could affect how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date,” the ministry said.
In the meantime, Western powers are doubling down on their support of Ukraine, moving to rush more heavy weapons in.
In Luhansk, one of two regions that make up the Donbas, the governor said Russian forces control 80% of his region. Before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the Kyiv government controlled 60% of Luhansk.
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 staff members around the world.