Vladimir Putin on Thursday claimed victory for Russia in Mariupol, the scene of the main battle fought since the start of the war in Ukraine on February 24 and which has become the symbol of the suffering of the Ukrainian civilian population.
After nearly two months of siege and shelling, Russia’s president says the Azov Sea shore port city of Mariupol has been “liberated”, although several hundred Ukrainian fighters remain rentrenched in the Azovstal steelworks.
Vladimir Putin has ordered his army to forego an assault on this vast industrial complex, which has an extensive network of shelters and underground tunnels, and instead impose a perfectly airtight seat.
Ukraine, which denies that the entire city of Mariupol fell to the Russians, interpreted the decision as an admission of powerlessness while continuing to demand the establishment of safe evacuation corridors for trapped civilians. fighting, estimated at 120,000 by President Volodimir Zelensky.
“You have successfully completed the combat phase to liberate Mariupol. Allow me to congratulate you on this occasion and please convey my congratulations to the troops,” Vladimir Putin told his Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, during of an interview in the Kremlin broadcast on television.
“I consider that the planned assault on the industrial zone is not necessary,” he added. “There is no need to go down into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial buildings (…) Seal off this industrial site so that not even a fly can pass.”
This decision not to attack the Azovstal steelworks, one of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe, is announced as Russia has, for several days, issued ultimatums to the defenders of the site by offering them the alternative between surrender and death.
“They can’t take Azovstal physically, they understood that, they suffered huge losses there,” said an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, Oleksi Arestovitch. “Our defenders continue to hold on.”
Sergei Shoigu estimated that 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained entrenched in the Azovstal factory, which covers 11 km². Vladimir Putin called on them to surrender, promising them that Russia would treat them with respect and treat the wounded.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk for her part said that a thousand civilians and 500 wounded fighters needed to be evacuated from the site urgently, accusing the Russian forces of preventing the establishment of a corridor. evacuation yet approved.
The scene of the main military confrontation since the start of the Russian invasion, Mariupol, which previously had 400,000 inhabitants, has also become the site of the worst humanitarian crisis of this conflict.
Streets littered with corpses
Journalists who were able to get there discovered streets strewn with corpses, lined with buildings almost completely destroyed, with frozen inhabitants holed up in cellars, venturing outside only to cook on makeshift stoves. meals made from food scavenged here and there, or to bury loved ones in gardens.
Two events in particular symbolized what Ukraine and its Western supporters call Russia’s war crimes: the bombing of a maternity ward in early March and, a week later, that of a theater where hundreds of civilians in the basements.
Russia denies targeting civilians and says the events are staged.
The Ukrainian authorities speak of tens of thousands of civilians killed in Mariupol. They claim that some of them were buried in mass graves and that others were picked up from the streets by the Russian army to make them disappear in mobile incinerators.
The United Nations and the Red Cross find it impossible to estimate the civilian casualty toll at this stage but believe it is in the thousands.
Russia says it has evacuated 140,000 civilians from Mariupol to its soil. Ukraine accuses him of forced deportation, at least for some of them, which would constitute a war crime.
Putin wants victory before May 9
The capture of Mariupol, in the south-east of Ukraine, would allow Russia to ensure complete territorial continuity between the regions held by the separatists which it supports in the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, and the Crimean peninsula which it annexed in 2014.
It would also give Vladimir Putin the opportunity to post a great military success before May 9, anniversary date of the victory over Nazi Germany in Russia, which presents its intervention in Ukraine as a “special military operation” intended to demilitarize and “denazify” its neighbor.
The Russian army nevertheless made the choice in March to leave northern Ukraine, in particular because it had not been able to reach kyiv, in order to redeploy in the east of the country and prepare a major offensive in the Donbass, now presented as the priority of its military intervention.
For the Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksi Arestovitch, the decision not to attack the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol partly responds to the Russian desire to redeploy troops further north for this offensive on the Donbass.
Ukraine says Russian forces have still failed to completely take the town of Rubizhne, one of their current main targets in Donbass. Kharkiv, a large city in eastern Ukraine located near Russian supply routes to the Donbass, for its part suffered intense bombardment, said its mayor.
US promises new aid
Along with these fights, the talks between the two countries seem to have stalled. Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky told the Russian press on Thursday that he ruled out traveling to Moscow for talks aimed at ending the war in Ukraine.
“In the name of my country, I would be ready to visit any place on this planet. But certainly not Moscow and now. It’s just out of the question“, he told the Russian media Mediazona, in an interview also broadcast by the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.
“Nevertheless, under different circumstances and with different leaders in Moscow, anything would be possible,” he adds.
The latest European leaders to travel to kyiv to show EU support for Ukraine, the Spanish heads of government Pedro Sanchez and Danish Mette Frederiksen came to promise the Ukrainian president on Thursday new arms deliveries to his country .
In Washington, visited by Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Chmyhal, US President Joe Biden announced new US military aid to Ukraine of $800 million, including heavy artillery, ammunition and tactical drones.
Germany and Spain too
Germany is studying the level of maintenance and armament that its aging armored Marder infantry fighting vehicles that equip its army would need to be sent to fight in Ukraine, Defense Minister Annalena said on Thursday. Baerbock.
Traveling in the Baltic republics, the German minister has tried to respond to criticism aimed at Berlin because of its reluctance to provide heavy equipment to the Ukrainian army.
“We have no taboos about armored vehicles or other armaments that Ukraine needs,” she said during a press conference alongside her Estonian counterpart in Tallinn.
Spain has sent some 200 tonnes of ammunition and military equipment to Ukraine, which more than doubles the volume of military aid delivered so far by Madrid. The head of the Spanish government also said that his country would ask the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine and that he was considering sending specialized investigators there.
Russia takes action on 29 Americans
Russia also today expanded the list of U.S. officials barred from entering Russia to include Vice President Kamala Harris and 28 other officials, entrepreneurs and journalists, including Pentagon spokesman John Kirby and Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg. “These individuals are banned from entering Russia indefinitely.“, said in a statement the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which published the list