Ukraine-Russia: Vladimir Putin claims victory in Mariupol, despite forces holding out in steel plant
Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed victory in the strategic city of Mariupol, even as he ordered his troops not to risk more losses by storming the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the war's iconic battleground.
Russian troops have besieged the south-eastern port city since the early days of the conflict and largely reduced it to ruins. Russian officials have repeatedly claimed it was about to fall, but Ukrainian forces have stubbornly held on in the face of overwhelming odds.
It comes as the UK Government banned imports of caviar and other high-end products from Russia in the latest round of sanctions. The import ban is being extended to cover silver and wood products while tariffs on imports of diamonds and rubber from Russia and Belarus are being increased by 35 per cent.
International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: "We are taking every opportunity we can to ratchet the pressure to isolate the Russian economy and these further measures will tighten the screws, shutting down lucrative avenues of funding for (Vladimir) Putin's war machine."
The battle in the east of Ukraine has intensified. In recent weeks, the last remaining troops in Mairiupol, which has been all but destroyed, have taken refuge in a steel plant, as Russian forces pounded the industrial site and repeatedly issued ultimatums ordering their surrender.
However, on Thursday, Mr Putin seemed to shift the narrative and declared victory without taking the plant.
"The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success," he said, in footage which showed him sitting at a small table with his defence minister, at odds with his usual appearances at one end of a vast, long table, believed to be due to his own strict Covid regulations. "Congratulations."
Ukraine refuted the idea that a Russian victory in Mariupol was already achieved.
"This situation means the following - they cannot physically capture Azovstal. They have understood this. They suffered huge losses there," said Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
By painting the mission as a success even without a head-on storming of the plant, Mr Putin may be seeking to take the focus off the site, which has become a global symbol of defiance.
Even without the plant, the Russians appear to have control of the rest of the city and its vital port, though that facility seems to have suffered extensive damage.
The Russian leader said that, for now, he would not risk sending troops into the warren of tunnels under the giant Azovstal plant, instead preferring to isolate the defenders "so that not even a fly comes through".
Defence minister Sergei Shoigu said the plant was blocked off, while giving yet another prediction that the site could be taken in days.
Mr Shoigu said about 2,000 Ukrainian troops remained in the site, which has 15 miles of tunnels and bunkers that spread out across about four square miles. Ukrainian officials said that about 1,000 civilians were also trapped there along with 500 wounded soldiers and demanded their release.
Mr 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.
"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 said.
Mr Parry called it a change in "operational approach" as Russia tries to learn from its failures in the eight-week-old conflict, which began with expectations of a lightning offensive that would quickly crush Ukraine's outgunned and outnumbered forces.
Instead, Moscow's forces became bogged down by a stiffer-than-expected resistance with ever mounting casualties and costs.
For weeks now, Russian officials have said capturing the Donbas, Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, is the war's main goal.
Moscow's forces opened a new phase of the war this week - a deadly drive along a front from the north-eastern city of Kharkiv to the Azov Sea - to do just that.
Detaching the region from the rest of Ukraine would give Mr Putin a badly needed victory.
"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," Mr Parry said.
The Ministry of Defence said that Russia probably wants to demonstrate significant successes ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest moment on the annual calendar marking its critical role in winning the Second World War.
"This could affect how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date," the ministry said.
In the meantime, western powers are doubling down on their support of Ukraine, moving to push more military hardware in, heightening geopolitical stakes.
With global tensions running high, Russia reported the first successful test launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat, on Wednesday.
The head of the Russian state aerospace agency called the launch out of northern Russia "a present to Nato". However, the Pentagon described the test as "routine" and said it was not considered a threat.
The Luhansk governor said Russian forces control 80 per cent of his region, which is one of two that make up the Donbas. Before Russia invaded, the Kyiv government controlled 60 per cent of the Luhansk region.
Analysts have said the offensive in the east could become a war of attrition as Russia faces Ukraine's most experienced, battle-hardened troops, who have fought pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas for eight years.
Russia said it presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands for ending the conflict - days after Mr Putin said the talks were at a "dead end". Moscow has long demanded Ukraine drop any bid to join Nato. Ukraine has said it would agree to that in return for security guarantees from other countries.
Other sources of tension include the status of both the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Moscow in 2014, and eastern Ukraine.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.