The siege of Mariupol continues. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his army not to launch a direct attack on the Azovstal steelworks, where thousands of Ukrainian fighters are still holding out after two months of fighting for the city. “I think that the hypothetical assault on the industrial zone would not be good, I propose its cancellation,” the president stressed to his Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigú, during a face-to-face meeting in which the high command promised the fall of the city in the next few days. In addition, the Kremlin has given a new ultimatum to the combatants with a curious offer: it guarantees their lives and treatment according to international law if they surrender.
“Lock off the industrial zone so that a fly does not fly,” Putin told his minister during an in-person meeting released by the Kremlin. According to the president, his priority is to limit the losses of his own troops and officers in a siege that has been going on since the end of February and has claimed numerous lives between both sides and the inhabitants of the city.
Shoigu promised him in return the complete capture of the city shortly. “As for those who have hidden at the Azovstal plant, inside and on its perimeter, we will need three or four days to complete this work,” the head of the Defense Ministry replied to Putin. According to his calculations, some 2,000 members of the Ukrainian armed forces remain inside the steelworks. As a comparison, he assures that they have killed more than 4,000 combatants during the struggle for the city and another 1,478 have surrendered.
The capture of this coastal city is vital to unite the rest of the Donbas region with the Crimean peninsula and fulfill the objectives to which the Russian Government has limited itself after the advance and withdrawal of fronts such as kyiv and Kharkov: achieve independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, not recognized by the international community. In addition, it has a huge symbolic component for the Kremlin, which ordered the advance of its troops on Ukraine on February 24 under the pretext of “denazifying” the country.
“The kyiv regime named Mariupol in 2014 the de facto and temporary capital of Donetsk. Within eight years, he made it a powerful fortress and made it a haven for radical Ukrainian nationalists. This is, in fact, the capital of the Azov battalion”, Shoigu remarked during his intervention in a message that seemed directed more to the Russians than to Putin.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
Russian authorities have issued several ultimatums to Ukrainian fighters in that industrial zone in the past few weeks. The last one was announced by Putin himself during the conversation with Shoigu. “Offer this to all those who surrender their weapons: the Russian side guarantees their lives and a dignified treatment in accordance with international treaties,” the president declared. However, this is the second such ultimatum in two days. On April 19, the Russian high command published another statement urging them to surrender before 12:00 in exchange for protecting their lives.
There have been several announcements of an alleged imminent fall of Mariupol these two months. The Chechen president, Ramzán Kadírov, published this Thursday a new video on his channel where he again predicted his surrender “before or after this noon.” The Independent Russian Media Bazhny Istoriideclared a foreign agent by the authorities, has listed up to 26 occasions in which the Chechen leader has announced the taking of Mariupol these two months.
In any case, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledges that the Ukrainian forces prepared for a long fight. “They created reserves of rockets, ammunition, fuel and food for a long-term operation,” said Shoigú, who added that the port and its ships have also been mined to make it difficult for the attackers to reinforce them.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the rest of the city remains calm and the population can return to their homes, although the two months of fighting have torn the city apart, turning into house-to-house fighting. “They turned almost all residential buildings into long-term fire points. On the first floors they deployed armored vehicles and artillery, on the upper floors snipers and other rocket launchers,” Shoigú said.
A day before the meeting between Putin and Shoigu, Russian news agencies released another video showing the apparent evacuation of civilians from the steel mill. Since the Russian military campaign began, more than 10 million people, 25% of its population, have fled their homes, according to the UN.