Has Mariupol fallen? Vladimir Putin claims victory despite holdout by 2,000 Ukrainian troops
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory over the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on April 21, 2022. According to Russia, it has succeeded in "liberating" the entire city, barring the Azovstal steel plant, where an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 1,000 civilians remain holed up. Tragically, it seems they may be forced to die there, after a shocking decision by the Russian leader.
The victory is Putin's first in his bloody and brutal campaign in Ukraine, coming nearly two months after he launched the invasion. The city of Mariupol has been close to collapse for weeks, with soldiers begging for reinforcements and aid, while multiple attempts have been made to establish humanitarian corridors for civilians to leave. Adding to the tragedy, there have been reports of Russia using chemical agents, which is just one of the many war crimes the nation has been accused of.
However, as with all other reports from the war, there appears to be a contrast when it comes to the facts on the ground. Little remains of Mariupol after Putin's extensive bombing campaign, but Ukraine has refused to acknowledge the city has capitulated.
Has Mariupol fallen?
On April 21, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly told Putin that Mariupol was "liberated" while the Azovstal steel plant was "securely blocked". It led Putin to hail the campaign as a "success", the only one he has had so far. We do know that the only pocket of resistance has been at the plant for weeks, with Ukrainian troops forced, killed, or surrendering in all other parts of the city.
Tragically, it appears Putin has little appetite to see those holed up at the plant leave. Reports say he has ordered Russian troops to seal off the plant "so that not even a fly comes through." In a televised meeting, the Russian leader said, "There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities." He also promised to treat any injured Ukrainian soldiers if they surrendered, but so far it seems that promise won't be tested.
That means the fate of the nearly 3,000 Ukrainians inside the plant is now unknown. Without food, water, or medicine, they could die in a matter of days if they aren't extradited. Ukraine's Deputy PM has called on the international community to "focus now their efforts exactly on Azovstal." Surprisingly, the decision to avoid storming the plant comes as Putin expressed concern for the lives of Russian soldiers, the first time he has done so. Mayor Vadym Boychenko though flatly refused Putin's claims. "The city was, is, and remains Ukrainian. Today our brave warriors, our heroes, are defending our city."
The claim of victory comes as satellite images show at least 200 new graves in Mariupol, where Russians have allegedly buried Ukrainian residents killed in the conflict. It's unclear just how many residents have died, but the graves signal that despite the revelations in Bucha, Russia is still keen to attempt to hide evidence of war crimes. The victory is not just a major moral one for Putin and Russia but presents a key strategic opportunity as well.
With Mariupol in its hands, Russia now has a land corridor from its border to Crimea, the peninsula it captured back in 2014. It would make it easier for Russia to move weapons, men, and material across the region, and give it full control over the Sea of Azov, a key route into the Black Sea. The victory is also likely to become the key focus of Russia's Victory Day parade on May 9, which has historically been used to celebrate the surrender of Nazi Germany.