Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory Thursday in the battle for Mariupol despite an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters still holed up at a giant steel mill, ordering his troops not to storm the stronghold but to seal it off “so that not even a fly comes through.”
Putin expressed concern for the lives of Russian troops in deciding against sending them in to clear out the sprawling Azovstal plant, where the die-hard defenders were hiding in a maze of underground passageways.
Putin’s comments came as satellite image provider Maxar Technologies released photos showing more than 200 of what it called new mass graves in a town where Ukrainian officials say the Russians have been burying Mariupol residents killed in the fighting. The imagery shows long rows of graves stretching away from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused the Russians of “hiding their military crimes” by taking the bodies of civilians from the city and burying them in Manhush.
As many as 9,000 civilians could be buried in mass graves in Manhush, the Mariupol City Council said Thursday in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
Boychenko labeled Russian actions in the city as “the new Babi Yar,” a reference to the site of multiple Nazi massacres in which nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed in 1941.
In a statement, Maxar said a review of previous images indicates that the new graves were dug in late March and expanded over the past couple of weeks.
After nearly two lethal months of bombardment that largely reduced Mariupol to a smoking ruin, Russian forces appear to control the rest of the strategic southern city, including its vital but now badly damaged port.
But a few thousand Ukrainian troops, by Moscow’s estimate, have stubbornly held out for weeks at the steel plant, despite a pummeling from Russian forces and repeated demands for their surrender. About 1,000 civilians were also trapped there, according to Ukrainian officials.
Instead of sending troops to finish off the defenders in a potentially bloody frontal assault, Russia apparently intends to maintain the siege and wait for the fighters to surrender when they run out of food or ammunition.
Boychenko rejected any notion that Mariupol had fallen into Russian hands.
“The city was, is, and remains Ukrainian,” he declared. “Today our brave warriors, our heroes, are defending our city.”
The capture of Mariupol would represent the Kremlin’s biggest victory yet of the war in Ukraine. It would help Moscow secure more of the coastline, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and free up more forces to join the larger and potentially more consequential battle now underway for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas.
At a joint appearance with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin declared, “The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” and he offered congratulations to Shoigu.
Shoigu predicted the steel plant could be taken in three to four days, but Putin said that would be “pointless” and would risk Russian lives.
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” the Russian leader said. “Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly comes through.”
The plant covers 11 square kilometers and is threaded with some 24 kilometers of tunnels and bunkers. “The Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where the Ukrainians can hold out in the urban centers, but to try and capture territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory,” retired British Rear Adm. Chris Parry said.