Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed victory in the battle for Mariupol, even as he orders his troops not to take the risk of storming the giant steel plant where the last Ukrainian defenders in the city are holed up.
Instead, on Thursday he directed his forces to seal off the Azovstal plant “so that not even a fly comes through”.
After nearly two lethal months of bombardment that have largely reduced Mariupol to a smoking ruin, Russian forces appear to control the rest of the strategically vital city, including its vital but now badly damaged port. But the Ukrainian troops have stubbornly held out.
Mr Putin’s comments came as satellite images showed more than 200 new graves in a town where Ukrainian officials say the Russians have been burying Mariupol residents killed in the fighting. The imagery, from Maxar Technologies, shows long rows of graves stretching away from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush, some 20km from Mariupol.
A few thousand defenders, by Russia’s estimate, have been holed up for weeks along with hundreds of civilians in the sprawling steel plant, as Mr Putin’s forces pounded the site and repeatedly demanded they surrender.
But on Thursday, the Russian leader declared victory without taking the plant, which covers 11 sq km and is threaded with some 24km of tunnels and bunkers.
“The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” he said in an appearance with his defence minister.
Instead of mounting a frontal attack on the plant, Russia apparently intends to maintain the siege and wait for the defenders to surrender when they run out of food or ammunition.
Ukraine scoffed at the notion of a Russian victory.
“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 Zelenskyy.
The capture of Mariupol would represent the Kremlin’s biggest victory yet of the war in Ukraine.
It would help Moscow secure more of the coastline, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and free up more forces to join the larger battle now underway for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas.
“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.
As for the drive in the east, the Russians continued heavy air and artillery attacks but did not appear to gain any significant ground over the past few days, according to military analysts, who said Moscow’s forces were still gearing up for a heavier offensive.
A senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment, said the Ukrainians were hindering the Russian effort to push south from Izyum.
Rockets struck a neighbourhood of Kharkiv on Thursday, and at least two civilians were burned to death in their car. A school and a residential building were also hit, and firefighters tried to put out a blaze and search for anyone trapped.
Western nations, meanwhile, rushed to pour heavy weapons into Ukraine to help it counter the offensive in the east.
US President Joe Biden announced an additional US$800 ($1.1 billion) in military assistance for Kyiv, including heavy artillery, 144,000 rounds of ammunition and drones.
But he also warned the US$13.6 billion ($18.4 billion) approved last month by US Congress for military and humanitarian aid is “almost exhausted” and more will be needed.
Russia Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu estimated 2000 Ukrainian troops remained at the steel plant.
Ukrainian officials said about 1000 civilians were also trapped there along with 500 wounded soldiers.
Mr Shoigu said the site was blocked off and predicted it could be taken in days.
“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial area pointless,” Mr Putin responded, saying he was concerned about Russian soldiers.
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” the Russian leader added.
“Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly comes through.”
All told, more than 100,000 people were believed trapped with little or no food, water, heat or medicine in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of about 430,000.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of launching attacks to block civilian evacuations from the city.
On Thursday, at least two Russian attacks hit the city of Zaporizhzhia, a way station for people fleeing Mariupol, though no one was wounded, the regional governor said.
For weeks now, Russian officials have said capturing the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas is the war’s main goal.
Moscow’s forces opened the new phase of the war this week along a 480km front from the north-eastern city of Kharkiv to the Azov Sea.
“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,” Rear Admiral Parry said.
Britain’s Defence Ministry said Russia probably wants to demonstrate significant successes ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest day on the Russian calendar, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
“This could affect how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date,” the ministry said.