Putin orders blockade of Mariupol steelworks ‘so a fly can’t get through’

Russian president tells forces that storming last Ukrainian stronghold in port city would be ‘impractical’

Vladimir Putin has ordered his forces not to storm the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged city of Mariupol, after his defence minister admitted that the Russian army was still fighting thousands of Ukrainian troops there.

The Russian president described a plan to storm the Azovstal steelworks as “impractical” and called instead for Russian troops to blockade the area “so that a fly can’t get through”.

The declaration came during a meeting at the Kremlin, where the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, presented a report to Putin about the closely watched battle for the Ukrainian port city and claimed that the city had been “liberated”, although fighting was ongoing.

He said it would take several more days for the Russians to defeat the Ukrainians fighting at the steelworks, a sprawling mass of tunnels and workshops spread over four square miles in the south-east of the city.

The meeting appeared to be orchestrated in order for the Russians to step back from the assault on the steelworks, which has been stymied by a fierce Ukrainian resistance and the difficulties of operating in the industrial area.

Leaving the plant in Ukrainian hands robs the Russians of the ability to declare complete victory in Mariupol. The city’s capture has strategic and symbolic importance.

“This is the case when we have to think, that is, we always have to think, and in this case even more so, 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.”

Russia had decided to blockade the plant because it cannot take it by force, Oleksiy Arestovych, Ukraine’s presidential adviser said. “They physically cannot take Azovstal, they have understood this, they have taken huge losses there. Our defenders continue to hold it.”


Arestovych said at a briefing that the decision “can also be explained by the fact that they have moved part of their forces (from Mariupol) to the north in order to reinforce the troops attempting to fulfil their main objective ... advancing to the administrative boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

Russian officials including the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov had claimed that Russian troops would soon overrun the plant and its Ukrainian defenders.

“Before lunchtime, or after lunch, Azovstal will be completely under the control of the forces of the Russian Federation,” Kadyrov said on Wednesday.

A Ukrainian marine commander fighting in Mariupol said on Wednesday his forces were “maybe facing our last days, if not hours”, as another Russian ultimatum to the remaining Ukrainian troops in the besieged port city to surrender or die expired with no mass capitulation.

Putin’s order may mean that Russian forces are hoping they can wait for the defenders to surrender after running out of food or ammunition. Bombings of the plant could well continue. Russian-backed separatists in the Mariupol area previously seemed bent on taking every last inch of the city.

“The Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where the Ukrainians can hold out in the urban centres, but to try and capture territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory,” retired British Rear Admiral Chris Parry told the Associated Press.

Parry called it a change in “operational approach” as Russia tries to learn from its failures in the eight-week-old conflict “They’ve realised if they get sort of held up in these sort of really sticky areas like Mariupol, they’re not going to cover the rest of the ground,” Parry said.


The apparent change in Russia’s approach might also be a reflection of the mounting casualties it has suffered in the war.

The Russian defence ministry has refused to say how many sailors died onboard the Moskva cruiser, which sank last week, leading angry parents of soldiers to go public with demands for the government to find their children.

Putin’s public appeal to “protect the lives” of Russian soldiers may indicate the Kremlin is concerned it appears indifferent to its losses, critics said.

“When Putin says something publicly, it is almost always a consequence of the fact that the [Kremlin] has taken measurements of public opinion and has come to the conclusion that now it is necessary to speak in order to earn political points,” wrote Leonid Volkov, an ally of the jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

The Kremlin may also want to claim Mariupol well before the 9 May holiday, a date that some say is a symbolic target for the Russian government to declare a victory.

Andrei Turchak, the head of the ruling United Russia party, appeared in a Mariupol school this week to declare that “victory will be ours, the enemy will be defeated”.

“It is logical to assume that Putin should equate his ‘victory’ with Victory in 1945 and celebrate it on 9 May,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Centre. “But judging by the way the operation is going, he may prolong the hostilities, and 9 May will be just a day to achieve intermediate goals.”


Andrew Roth Moscow correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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