The US has assessed that Russian and Ukrainian forces are still fighting for control of Mariupol even after Moscow claimed it had conquered the port city and hailed its “liberation”.
Vladimir Putin, Russian president, on Thursday ordered his forces to “block off” the last remaining Ukrainian fighters at the Mariupol steelworks as he claimed success in the city after a two-month battle. Ukraine rejected the declaration, saying it only highlighted the strength of resistance at the steelworks.
Russia is “still focused on Mariupol, we haven’t seen them move away in any tangible way”, a senior US defence official said on Thursday, adding that Russia has carried out air strikes there in the past 24 hours. The official said that weather has been a factor for both sides in terms of maneuverability and visibility.
The last Ukrainian fighters are holding out in underground passageways at the Azovstal complex alongside about 1,000 civilians.
At a meeting with defence minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin told him to congratulate Russia’s forces for taking the city, an important target for linking separatist-held areas in the eastern Donbas region with territory captured in southern Ukraine.
While Shoigu said Russian forces controlled Mariupol’s residential areas, he acknowledged that his troops were still fighting in the Azovstal steelworks.
The Russian president told Shoigu not to storm the plant but instead “block it off so that a fly can’t get in”.
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden said “there is no evidence yet that Mariupol has completely fallen”. He also urged Putin to allow civilians to leave the besieged city.
“He should allow humanitarian corridors to allow people in that steel mill and other places that are buried under rubble to get out,” he said. “That’s what any head of state would do in such a circumstance.”
Commenting on Putin’s claim of victory in Mariupol, Oleksiy Arestovych, a senior adviser in Ukraine’s presidential office, said: “This means the following: they can’t take Azovstal.”
He added: “This premature announcement of a victory, not waiting for either [Orthodox] Easter [this weekend] or May 9 [the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany], shows that the Russians understand the lack of prospects for their latest military operation in this stage of the war.”
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that Azovstal was a “separate object” and barricading the remaining Ukrainian fighters there did not mean Russia had changed its plans for the invasion.
Capturing Mariupol, a crucial port for Ukrainian metals exports, would enable Moscow to link the annexed Crimean peninsula to mainland Russia, potentially allowing Putin to claim he had achieved his main objectives even as the invasion continues to sputter.
Shoigu also claimed Mariupol was the “capital” of the far-right nationalist Azov Battalion, giving Russia a potential opportunity to say it had achieved its vaguely defined goal of “denazifying” Ukraine.
Kyiv has said the city is all but destroyed and that at least 20,000 civilians have been killed during Russia’s siege, in which it has used heavy artillery, missile strikes and long-range bombers.
Ukraine has been seeking safe passage out of Mariupol for the remaining fighters and civilians sheltering underground, said to include children, elderly and wounded people.
Kyiv has offered to send representatives to the city to negotiate the departure of the military garrison and civilians.
Svyatoslav Palamara, deputy commander of the paramilitary Azov Battalion’s regiment in Mariupol, said in a video on Wednesday that fighters inside the complex wanted to evacuate their wounded and take the bodies of the dead and bury them with honour in territory not controlled by Russia.