Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces not to storm the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged city of Mariupol on Thursday but instead to block it “so that not even a fly comes through.”
His defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the rest of the city beyond the sprawling Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian forces were holed has been “liberated” — as Russian officials refer to areas of Ukraine they have seized. Putin hailed that as a “success.”
But leaving the plant in Ukrainian hands robs the Russians of the ability to declare complete victory in Mariupol, which has seen some of the most dramatic fighting of the war and whose capture has both strategic and symbolic importance.
The scale of suffering there has made it a worldwide focal point, and its definitive fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, and free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbas.
Shoigu said the plant was “securely blocked.”
Putin and Shoigu’s comments appeared to reflect a change in strategy in Mariupol, where the Russians previously seemed determined to take every last inch of the city. But it was not clear what it would mean in practical terms.
Ukraine demands corridor for Mariupol holdout
Meanwhile, a senior Ukrainian official has demanded from the Russian military to open a humanitarian corridor from the Azovstal steel plant, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the strategic port city of Mariupol.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Thursday on the messaging app Telegram that 'there are about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers there. They all need to be pulled out of Azovstal today!'.
Vereshchuk also called on world leaders and the international community to focus their efforts now on Azovstal. She said it was a key point and a key moment for humanitarian efforts.
Russian forces launched military operations in Ukraine on February 24, three days after Putin recognised Ukraine's breakaway regions - Donetsk and Luhansk - as independent entities.
Moscow has long demanded Ukraine drop any bid to join NATO. Ukraine has said it would agree to that in return for security guarantees from a number of other countries. Other sources of tension include the status of both the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Moscow in 2014, and eastern Ukraine, where the separatists have declared independent republics recognized by Russia.
With AP Inputs