KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the biggest battle of the Ukraine war on Thursday, declaring the port of Mariupol “liberated” after nearly two months of siege, despite hundreds of defenders still holding out inside a giant steel works.
In a televised meeting with his defence minister inside the Kremlin, Putin said there was no need for a final confrontation with the last defenders who were boxed in after surviving nearly two months of Russia’s siege.
“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary,” he told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised meeting at the Kremlin. “I order you to cancel it.”
“There’s 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 can get through.”
Shoigu estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained inside the plant. Putin called on them to lay down their weapons and surrender, saying Russia would treat them with respect.
Asked to comment on Russia’s decision to blockade the steel works rather than storm it, Ukraine’s defence ministry spokeswoman said the move testified to Putin’s “schizophrenic tendencies” and gave no further response.
Putin’s declaration of victory lets him claim his first big prize since his forces were driven out of northern Ukraine last month after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Mariupol, once home to 400,000 people, has been the scene of by far the worst fighting of the war and its worst humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands of civilians cut off for nearly two months under Russian siege and bombardment.
Journalists who reached it during the siege found streets littered with corpses, nearly all buildings destroyed, and residents huddled freezing in cellars, venturing out to cook scraps on makeshift stoves or to bury bodies in gardens.
Two incidents in particular became symbolic of what Kyiv and the West call Russian war crimes _ the bombing of a maternity hospital and, a week later, of a theatre with hundreds of civilians in the basement. Moscow denies targeting civilians, and, without evidence, says those incidents were faked.
Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians have died in Mariupol. It says some have been buried in mass graves, others removed from the streets by Russian forces using mobile cremation trucks to incinerate bodies.
The intensified Russian campaign to seize large swathes of eastern Ukraine has further diminished the prospects of stop-start peace talks producing any rapid agreement to end the war.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was still waiting for Kyiv’s response to a proposal it had handed over.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday that he had not seen or heard about the document that the Kremlin said it had sent.