By Natalia Zinets KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – The Ukrainian unit holed up beneath the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol said on Monday its garrison was fulfilling orders to save the lives of troops, an apparent sign that the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war had come to an end. Reuters saw about a dozen […]
Steelworks defenders appear to signal end of Mariupol siege
By Natalia Zinets
KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – The Ukrainian unit holed up beneath the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol said on Monday its garrison was fulfilling orders to save the lives of troops, an apparent sign that the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war had come to an end.
Reuters saw about a dozen buses apparently carrying Ukrainian fighters leaving the plant on Monday. It was not possible to determine how many people were aboard. Some 600 fighters have been estimated to be inside the vast Soviet-era plant, including dozens of wounded.
“In order to save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison is implementing the approved decision of the Supreme Military Command and hopes for the support of the Ukrainian people,” the Azov Regiment said in a social media post.
It said the defenders of Mariupol, in the southeast, had held out for 82 days, buying time for the rest of Ukraine to battle Russian forces and secure Western arms needed to withstand Russia’s assault.
The steelworks was the last Ukrainian-held bastion in the once prosperous port, now in ruins after months of Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people.
Since February, Mariupol’s devastation has become a symbol both of Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russia’s invasion, and of Russia’s willingness to destroy Ukrainian cities that hold out.
In a video accompanying the Azov Regiment statement, one of the unit’s senior commanders, Denys Prokopenko, said: “The main thing is to realise all the risks, is there a plan B, are you fully committed to that plan which must allow for fulfilling the assigned tasks and preserve the lives and health of personnel?”
“This is the highest level of overseeing troops. All the more so when your decision is endorsed by the highest military command.”
Prokopenko did not spell out what action the defenders were taking. The video was released hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk.
Apart from the steelworks, Mariupol is entirely in Russian hands after a siege which left residents huddled in basements with no food and water and streets littered with dead bodies.
Moscow denies having targeted civilians. The United Nations and Red Cross both estimate thousands of civilians died, with the true toll still uncounted.
The last defenders, including many who were wounded, had been holding out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels built to withstand nuclear war, deep beneath Azovstal, one of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe. Civilians were evacuated from inside the plant earlier this month.
“An agreement has been reached on the removal of the wounded,” Russia’s defence ministry said. “A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.”
Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar told Ukrainian television: “Any information can harm the processes that are taking place … Inasmuch as the process is under way, we can’t say what’s happening right now.”
Earlier, the wife of an Azov Battalion member had described conditions at the plant: “They are in hell. They receive new wounds every day. They are without legs or arms, exhausted, without medicines,” Natalia Zaritskaya said.
PUTIN CLIMBDOWN OVER NATO
Earlier on Monday, Vladimir Putin appeared to climb down from Russian threats to retaliate against Sweden and Finland for announcing plans to join NATO.
“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states – none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries,” Putin said.
The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric, after years of casting NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.
Just hours before Putin spoke, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Finland and Sweden were making a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences: “They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it.”
Putin said NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and that Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.
“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that (response) will be – we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin said.
Finland and Sweden, both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, say they now want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.
“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon militarily non-aligned status – a cornerstone of national identity for more than 200 years.
Kjell Engelbrekt, professor of political science at the Swedish Defence University, said Moscow now had few military options left to follow through on its previous “very assertive” rhetoric demanding the Nordics never join NATO.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had seen no indications Russia was moving troops or equipment closer to the border with Finland.
UKRAINE TROOPS REACH BORDER
Moscow calls its invasion a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.
Now nearly three months old, it has so far been a military disaster for Moscow, with its troops forced out of the north and the environs of Kyiv in late March. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Monday troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 40 km north of Kharkiv.
The successes near Kharkiv could let Ukraine attack supply lines for Russia’s own main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month achieving only small gains.
In a video message, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the achievement and thanked the troops: “I am very grateful to you from all Ukrainians, from everyone, from myself, from my family, my gratitude is unlimited.”
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kyiv and a Reuters journalist in Mariupol; Additional reporting by Ron Popeski and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Catherine Evans)