Kyiv: Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the strategic port of Mariupol on Thursday, saying that it had been liberated, Ukrainian forces stubbornly held on to their last pocket of resistance in a maze of tunnels inside the Azovstal steel plant.
Putin desisted from launching a final assault on the plant and has instead asked his troops to completely block off the complex, 'so that even a fly cannot escape'.
Russian troops besieged the port city in the early days of the conflict and have since pounded it incessantly; top officials have repeatedly indicated it was about to fall, but Ukrainian forces stubbornly held on. Putin's order may mean that Russian officials expect the defenders to surrender after they run out of food or ammunition.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said about 2,000 Ukrainian troops remained cooped up in the plant, which has a labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers spreading across 11 sq km. According to
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, about 1,000 civilians were also trapped in the complex.
The anticipated fall of the key city on the Azov Sea has made it a worldwide focal point, and its definitive fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, and free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbas.
Detaching the region from the rest of Ukraine would give Putin a badly needed victory two months into the war, after the botched attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv, and amid mounting Russian losses.
Russian officials now say capturing the Donbas, Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, is the war's main goal.
Britain's Defense Ministry said that Russia likely wants to demonstrate significant successes ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest moment on the annual calendar marking its critical role in winning World War II.
Retired British Rear Admiral Chris Parry described Putin's remarks on Thursday as reflecting a change in "operational approach" as Russia tries to learn from its failures in the eight-week conflict, which turned from initial hopes of a lightning fast invasion into a war of attrition.
"It seems to me that 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,” Parry said.
In the meantime, Western powers are doubling down on their support of Ukraine, moving to push more military hardware in, heightening geopolitical stakes.