(CN) — Russia on Thursday claimed it had captured the besieged city of Mariupol, the scene of horrific suffering and fighting for the past two months, even though some 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers continued to hold out inside a sprawling steelworks plant.
In a video from inside the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen congratulating his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for “liberating” Mariupol and called off troops from storming the Azovstal steelworks plant, saying it was “impractical.” Instead, Putin ordered his troops to blockade the 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers inside the facility “so that a fly can’t get through.”
“The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success, I congratulate you,” Putin said, as reported by Interfax, a Russian news agency.
Shoigu claimed about 4,000 Ukrainian troops were killed in the battle over Mariupol and 1,478 had surrendered. Many of the 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers left in the Azovstal plant are members of the far-right Azov Regiment. There is a large underground system of tunnels beneath the plant, which covers four square miles.
Putin said storming the plant would lead to Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists getting killed.
“This is the case when we have to think …. about preserving the lives and health of our soldiers and officers,” Putin said. “There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities.”
Shoigu said it would take several more days to put an end to the Ukrainians holding out in Azovstal. Russia is expected to continue bombing the facility, where Ukraine says about 1,000 civilians, including women and children, are also sheltering.
Top officials in Kyiv said they were ready to go to Mariupol to hold talks to save its troops. Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk called on Russia to open a humanitarian corridor from the Azovstal plant to allow civilians and about 500 wounded soldiers to get out. Some civilians reportedly were able to get out on Thursday.
By capturing Mariupol, Russia may be able to move troops there toward the front lines in Donbas, the eastern part of Ukraine that is the focus of Russia's invasion. Russian military sources on Thursday showed tanks and armored vehicles with the hardcore Somali battalion of pro-Russian separatists leaving Mariupol to join the fight in Donbas.
Western military analysts said Russian forces were making minor advances in Donbas by seizing several small towns and advancing toward the key towns of Rubizhne and Popasna.
Sam Cranny-Evans, a researcher at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said there is a lot of uncertainty about how capable Ukraine will be to repel the Russian assault, according to a briefing note by Foreign Policy magazine.
Cranny-Evans said it was unclear how many Ukrainian troops have been killed, how much of Ukraine's military equipment has been destroyed and how well stocked its forces are in ammunition and food.
“The big question is: what has it cost them to hold on for this long? And do they have the ability to do that for another 50 days?” he told Foreign Policy.
“The uncertainty doesn’t necessarily mean Ukraine’s fighters are doomed, but it’s clear that the methods that helped slow Russian forces before – attacking isolated Russian units with drones and mobile artillery – won’t have the same effect this time,” Foreign Policy said.
More than 40,000 Ukrainian troops are believed to be in Donbas and they are considered among its best fighters with a lot of battle experience. Ukrainian forces have been waging combat with pro-Russian separatists in Donbas for the past eight years.
Bad weather is becoming a factor in the Donbas battle as rain turns fields to mud and clouds make it harder for satellite imagery to be effective.
The West, meanwhile, continues to ship tanks, helicopters and artillery to Ukraine.
“Clearly what the Russians want to do is cut them off and to defeat them in the Donbas. But they haven’t yet,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Tuesday. “And again we don’t believe it’s inevitable that they will. But where it’s going to go tomorrow we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Elsewhere, Russia is relentlessly shelling Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. It is located in northeastern Ukraine and lies close to Donbas and Russia appears determined to seize it too.
“Huge blasts, the Russian Federation is furiously bombing the city,” Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said.
He said about 1 million people remain in the city, while about 30% of the population, mainly women, children and the elderly, have evacuated.
Russian propaganda has talked about carving out a new state in eastern Ukraine east of the Dnieper River.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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