Ukraine war: Russia claims to have taken full control of Mariupol
- Capture of the strategic port city after a nearly three-month siege would be Moscow’s biggest victory yet in the war
- Russia’s defence ministry says 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at the embattled Azovstal steelworks had surrendered since Monday
Russia claimed to have captured Mariupol on Friday in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, after a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of the strategic port city to a smoking ruin, with more than 20,000 civilians feared dead.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol – the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance – and the city as a whole, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the ministry as saying 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at the steelworks had surrendered since Monday, including more than 500 on Friday.
As they surrendered, the troops were taken prisoner by the Russians, and at least some were taken to a former penal colony. Others were said to be hospitalised.
The defence of the steel mill had been led by Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, whose far-right origins have been seized on by the Kremlin as part of an effort to cast its invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.
Russia said the Azov Commander was taken away from the plant in an armoured vehicle.
Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the steel mill’s defenders for war crimes and put them on trial, branding them “Nazis” and criminals. That has stirred international fears about their fate.
The steelworks, which sprawled across 11 square km, had been the site of fierce fighting for weeks.
The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out, drawing Russian air strikes, artillery and tank fire, before their government ordered them to abandon the plant’s defence and save themselves.
The complete takeover of Mariupol gives Putin a badly needed victory in the war he began on February 24 – a conflict that was supposed to have been a lightning conquest for the Kremlin but instead has seen the failure to take the capital of Kyiv, a pullback of forces to refocus on eastern Ukraine, and the sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Military analysts said Mariupol’s capture at this point was of mostly symbolic importance, since the city was already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the fighting there had already left.
Russia also launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Luhansk, one of two southeastern Ukrainian provinces Moscow proclaims as independent states.
Serhiy Gaidai, the Governor of the Luhansk region, said in a social media post early on Saturday that Russia was trying to destroy the city of Sievierodonetsk, with fighting taking place on the outskirts of the city.
“Shelling continues from morning to the evening and also throughout the night,” Gaidai said in a video post on the Telegram messaging app.
In the early hours of Saturday, air raid sirens were going off in much of Ukraine, including in the Kyiv capital region and the southern port of Odesa.
Capturing Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, much of which make up Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region, would allow Moscow to claim a victory after announcing last month that this was now its objective.
Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front.
“This will be the critical next few weeks of the conflict,” said Mathieu Boulegue, an expert at London’s Chatham House think tank. “And it depends on how effective they are at conquering Sievierodonetsk and the lands across it.”
The city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lysychansk across the Siverskiy Donets river form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket that Russia has been trying to overrun since mid-April after failing to capture Kyiv.
Ukraine’s general staff said on Saturday that Russian forces were preparing to try again to cross the river, after a previous attempt earlier this month led to one of the largest battles in the conflict so far.
Russian forces in Ukraine have been driven in recent weeks from the area surrounding Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and the Kyiv region at the end of March.
But they still control a large swathe of the south and east, and the end of fighting in Mariupol means that that territory is now largely unbroken.
In a sign of Russia’s aim to boost its war effort, the parliament in Moscow said it would consider letting Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 join the military.
The past week has also seen Sweden and Finland apply to join Nato, although Turkey has threatened to block them, accusing the Nordic countries of harbouring Kurdish militants.
Russia’s Gazprom on Saturday halted gas exports to Finland, the Finnish gas system operator said, the latest escalation of an energy payments dispute with Western nations.
Additional reporting by Reuters