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The Russian president said that instead he was ordering his troops to block the sprawling Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian forces were still holed up “so that not even a fly comes through”.
Mr Putin’s move marked a staggering show of resistance by Ukrainian forces against the barbaric invasion which has seen his plans to seize the country, including Kyiv, within days collapse into failure.
As the Kremlin desperately seeks to claim military successes, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said the rest of the southern port city beyond the steel plant had been “liberated”.
Mr Putin hailed that as a “success” but his decision appeared to have been to avoid further heavy losses among Russian troops. It was still possible, though, that his announcement could be a bluff before unleashing a final onslaught in Mariupol.
The besieged Ukrainian marines had warned that they were within days, or even hours, of being overwhelmed having run low on ammunition, food and other supplies.The failure to capture the steel plant denies Mr Putin the ability to declare complete victory in Mariupol, where thousands of civilians are reported to have been killed by intense Russian shelling and air strikes. Its fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the annexed Crimean peninsula and free up more Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbas.
British defence chiefs said that Mr Putin may now throw more Russian soldiers into fierce battles in the Donbas as he scrambles to be able to show “significant successes” in Ukraine ahead of May 9, a key date in the Russian military calendar. It marks the Nazis’ surrender in the Second World War and an annual parade is held through Moscow’s Red Square.
But Mr Putin will be sending his forces to try to seize land which well-trained and well-equipped Ukrainian military units have been defending for up to eight years. They have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas of eastern Ukraine since 2014 and are well dug-in.
The Ministry of Defence in London said that more Russian forces were now being deployed forward in the Donbas.
Mr Putin’s generals were also seeking to destroy Ukrainian air defences, with a “high level” of Russian air activity.
In its latest intelligence update, the MoD said: “Russian forces are now advancing from staging areas in the Donbas towards Kramatorsk, which continues to suffer from persistent rocket attacks.
“Russia likely desires to demonstrate significant successes ahead of their annual 9th May Victory Day celebrations. This could affect how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date.”
It added: “High levels of Russian air activity endure as Russia seeks to provide close air support to its offensive in eastern Ukraine, to suppress and destroy Ukrainian air defence capabilities.”
However, a senior Ukrainian official predicted that if the West continues to supply weapons to president Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces, Mr Putin would fail to achieve any significant victories in the Donbas by early May. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the national security and defence council of Ukraine, tweeted: “If this help continues, Putin will have nothing by 5/9. There could be mourning instead in Moscow.”
Mr Putin’s apparent shift in strategy came as he held talks with Mr Shoigu, across a small desk rather than a huge one as in previous meetings.
The defence minister, carefully reading his words to Mr Putin, said: “As of today, all of Mariupol is under the control of the Russian Army. The people’s militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Azovstal plant with the remnants of nationalists and foreign mercenaries is securely blocked.”
The president told him: “I do not think the proposed storming of the industrial zone is advisable. I order to cancel it.” Mr Shoigu replied meekly: “Yes, it is [cancelled].”
Mr Putin told him: “This is a case when we have to think… about saving the lives and health of our soldiers and officers.”
Russian troops have suffered heavy losses during the invasion, with reports of fatalities as high as 20,000, although this may be an exaggeration.
Tens of thousands of civilians are also feared to have been killed across the country in Russian shelling and air strikes as well as some being executed in war crime atrocities.
Thousands of Ukrainian military personnel have also been killed.
Earlier today, Ukrainian officials said four buses carrying civilians managed to escape from Mariupol after several unsuccessful attempts. Thousands more remain in the city, much of which has been reduced to a smoking ruin in a nearly two-month siege.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden was expected to announce plans to send more military aid to Ukraine. Mr Zelensky said the West had “come to understand our needs better”.