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More Ukrainian troops surrender, cracks show in Ukraine defenses and West’s resolve 

Russia said more than 770 additional Ukrainian troops inside the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol have surrendered and its forces claimed advances in eastern Ukraine.

(CN) — Cracks are appearing in Ukraine's defenses in the eastern part of the country as Russian forces continued to make advances on Thursday and hundreds of additional Ukrainian soldiers surrendered at Azovstal, a steelworks plant in Mariupol that has been under siege for weeks.

Despite assertions from Kyiv and its Western allies that Russia is losing the war in Ukraine, there are signs that Russian forces are breaking down Ukraine's forces in the battlefields of Donbas, an eastern region the Kremlin is determined to conquer after it failed to seize Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city.

There also are cracks appearing in the West's resolve to stand up to Russia. On Thursday, Turkey repeated its objections to the admission of Sweden and Finland into the NATO alliance, accusing them of supporting Kurdish rebels. Turkey has been in a years-long conflict with Kurdish separatists.

Croatia's president, Zoran Milanovic, also said he would seek to block the entry of the Nordic countries, according to news reports. He said he would back their entry into the alliance only if changes are made to the election system in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he alleges Croats do not get fair representation.

In addition, plans by the European Union to impose an embargo on Russian crude oil this week continued to be torpedoed by Hungary, which said it cannot do without Russian supplies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the past has been close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, Western efforts to arm Ukraine with heavy weapons appears to be lagging and unease and anger is growing in the West over soaring inflation caused by the war.

On Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world is facing serious food shortages due to the war. Ukraine and Russia are major grain and fertilizer suppliers.

Speaking at a U.N. meeting in New York City, Guterres said the war, climate change and the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic could “tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity” and he warned of “malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years.”

Ukraine's potential troubles in the war have been underscored by videos showing hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steelworks surrendering.

On Thursday morning, the Russian defense ministry said 771 Ukrainian soldiers, including at least one top commander, laid down their arms over the previous 24 hours, according to Tass, a Russian state news agency. In all, Russia said 1,730 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered at the plant.

Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian defense ministry, said the new soldiers who surrendered were members of the Azov Regiment, a far-right militia that was incorporated into the Ukrainian national guard.

Capturing the Azov fighters, considered some of Ukraine's best-trained, represents a big win for the Kremlin, which accuses the Azov Regiment of harboring “Nazis.” In launching the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin said “de-Nazifying” and “demilitarizing” Ukraine were his main goals.

Russian sources claimed that an Azov deputy commander named Svyatoslav Palamar, a soldier known by his call sign “Kalina” who made videos about the state of fighting in Mariupol, was among those who surrendered. He and other Azov fighters reportedly were placed in custody at a prison in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Russia will likely put Azov fighters on trial for alleged war crimes. However, late Thursday, Ukraine state media released a video of Palamar claiming he was still in the Azovstal plant along with other commanders.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-declared independent republic of Donetsk, said more than half of the fighters inside the steelworks have surrendered. Mariupol lies within the boundaries of the Donetsk region and served as a key port city for the region before the outbreak of war.

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Pushilin said about 60% of the city's buildings are so badly damaged that they cannot be rebuilt. Mariupol had a population of about 450,000 before the invasion started, but half or less of that population is left in the devastated city.

He also said there are no plans to rebuild the destroyed Azovstal steelworks plant, which employed about 10,000 workers, but that another steel and iron factory in Mariupol, the Illich facility, will be restored. He said there are plans to make Mariupol a resort city.

Seizing Mariupol is a major strategic victory for Russia because it helps consolidate a “land bridge” between the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014 from Ukraine, and parts of southern Russia on the Sea of Azov.

However, the government in Kyiv says it will continue fighting to ensure the enemy is pushed out of Mariupol and other parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops.

In its latest update on the war, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said plans to not rebuild Azovstal showed how Russia's invasion has left it with only “Pyrrhic victories.”

Turning Mariupol into a resort city would deprive “Russia of some of the most important economic benefits it hoped to reap by taking the city in the first place,” the think tank said.

“The announced plan to turn Mariupol into a center of tourism and leisure following the complete destruction of a major center of economic activity in Mariupol, is indicative of the damage that Russian troops have inflicted on themselves through the destruction of Mariupol,” the report said. “This announcement epitomizes the kind of Pyrrhic victories Russian forces have won in Ukraine, to the extent that they have won victories at all.”

On the battlefields of Donbas, Russian forces reportedly are threatening to break through Ukrainian defenses and encircle large numbers of its adversaries.

In eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian forces are making advances around Kharkiv and launching attacks from the north on Russian forces seeking to encircle Ukrainians defending the small Donbas cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

“Ukraine is having success with its Kharkiv offensive. But the sense in Donbas is that the situation is deteriorating significantly – and that this has accelerated in recent days,” Neil Hauer, a Canadian freelance journalist on the front lines in Donbas, said Wednesday on Twitter. “Russian troops have advanced on several axes in the past 24 hours and there's an ominous feeling here.”

He said shelling “continues to get worse” and that even though Russia's army is “significantly degraded … it still has a lot of firepower.”

In recent days, Russian and pro-Russian separatist forces have claimed to have seized control of several settlements in their drive to encircle Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

There are reports of fighting reaching the outskirts of Sievierodonetsk and RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, claimed that up to 2,500 Ukrainian troops in Lysychansk have become cut off and are now encircled.

“They have the options to either lay down their arms and survive or continue their resistance and die,” said Rodion Miroshnik, the ambassador to Russia for the self-declared “Luhansk People's Republic,” a second breakaway region.

In recent days, videos have appeared showing Ukrainian troops depicting a desperate situation on the front lines due to a lack of weaponry and support.

Ukrainian officials reportedly are also deeply upset by the slow pace of weapons deliveries from the West.

Politico reported Wednesday that the White House has hesitated in sending long-range rocket systems to Ukraine for fear Kyiv will launch strikes far inside Russia and escalate the war. Ukraine says it needs the rockets to outgun Russia in Donbas. Germany, too, has been slow to supply heavy duty artillery.

Behind public statements about the need to see Russia defeated, European leaders are pushing for an end to the war through negotiation with French President Emmanuel Macron talking about the need to not worsen the war by “humiliating” Putin.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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