LONDON — Russian officials claimed Thursday that the port city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine had come under their control. The besieged city has been reduced to rubble since the launch of the invasion on Feb. 24 as Russian forces attempted to capture the city for eight weeks.
“Mariupol has been liberated by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the forces of the People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Kremlin Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin during a televised meeting in Moscow. Shoigu called the city “a powerful, fortified area, equipped with a large number of heavy weapons and military equipment.”
Also during the televised address, Shoigu said that around 2,000 Ukrainian troops were continuing to hold out in the massive Azovstal steel plant, which spans 4 miles. He then alleged that the troops were using their civilians as human shields and that the Russian army “took all measures to preserve the lives of civilians.”
It is estimated that at least tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol, with the city’s mayor stating last week that around 100,000 still remain there. On Wednesday, an adviser to the mayor said the 1,000 civilians inside the steel building, believed to be the last stronghold, had no access to “normal” supplies of food and water. The Kremlin has denied intentionally targeting civilians.
In the Thursday meeting, Putin called off his army from storming the steel plant, calling the plan “impractical,” and instead ordered troops to blockade the area “so that a fly can’t get through,” the Guardian reported. “I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary,” Putin told Shoigu. “I order you to cancel it.” Putin went on to say that the decision not to storm the plant was for the safety of his soldiers. “There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” he said.
Ukrainian officials have yet to verify Russia’s claims about taking control of Mariupol, which had 430,000 residents before the invasion. According to the New York Times, three-quarters of the city’s population has fled to neighboring countries, adding to the 5 million Ukrainians who have been forced out of the country since Feb. 24.
If seized, Mariupol would be the largest city to be taken by Russia since it invaded eight weeks ago. In recent days, Russian forces have intensified their push in the Donbas region, claiming the city of Kreminna in a new offensive to take eastern Ukraine. Taking control of Donbas, where Mariupol is located, would mean Russia would have a southern land corridor to the annexed Crimean Peninsula, which has been occupied by Kremlin forces since 2014. If Mariupol’s control has fallen into Russian hands, Putin would end up with 80% of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline, cutting it off from its maritime trade.