The heroic defenders of Mariupol have declared ‘mission accomplished’ as survivors began evacuating from the city after 82 days under Russia siege, with the full garrison expected to leave by the end of the day.
Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion which has been leading the city’s defence, said in a video message last night that that his men had ‘carried out the order’ to hold up Russian forces in the city and allowed the Ukrainian army to regroup, train more men and receive weapons from abroad.
Battered, bloody, but unbowed, he said the ‘entire Mariupol garrison’ will now be evacuated from the city ‘in order to save lives’. ‘No weapon will work without professional servicemen, making them the most valuable element of the army,’ he added.
President Zelensky delivered a similar message on Monday night after the first batch of 264 fighters – 53 of them seriously wounded – were brought out of the Azvostal steel plant where they have been holed up since early April, in an inspiring last-ditch defence. ‘Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,’ he said.
Efforts to extract the last of Azvostal’s defenders are continuing today, the military said, though were shrouded in secrecy to protect lives. It is thought the UN and Red Cross, which helped to extract civilians from the steel plant 10 days ago, are involved in the mission. It is unclear how many men still need to be rescued.
The evacuated soldiers are being taken to Russian-controlled territory, but will be returned to Ukraine via a prisoner swap. It is unclear when exactly that swap will take place.
Once the withdrawal is complete it will mean that Mariupol, once a prosperous city on the Azov Sea held up by its mayor as a shining example of what was possible as Ukraine pulled away from Russia and drew closer to Europe, will fall into Moscow’s hands.
It will become that largest city to fall so far and provide Putin with a badly-needed propaganda win. It will mean a so-called ‘land corridor’ from occupied Donbas to Crimea, viewed as one of the main objectives of the ‘operation’, will be completed. But it comes at an enormous cost.
Russia has been forced to near-totally destroy the city in order to capture it, with more than 12 battalions of troops and heavy equipment mauled in the process. There is little doubt that the effort has hampered progress elsewhere, particularly in Donbas.
Putin’s Donbas force is now thought to be so badly weakened that commanders have given up a wide-ranging effort to surround Ukrainian troops and are instead focused on taking full control of the Luhansk region by capturing the sister cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
The last heroic defenders of Mariupol have begun evacuating from the Azovstal steel plant, as their commander declared ‘mission accomplished’ after holding up Russia’s attack for 82 days (pictured, Russian troops frisk them down as they leave)
A first batch of soldiers were brought out of the steel works on Monday, among them 53 badly-wounded troops who were taken to a nearby town under Russian control for treatment
Russian soldiers are pictured frisking down the last Azovstal defenders as they are evacuated from the steel works, with their commander saying the ‘entire garrison’ will be withdrawn
A badly wounded soldier taken out of Azovstal is loaded on to a bus for transport last night, as the defenders of Mariupol finally abandon their defence of the city
Russian medics load one of the Azovstal defenders into an ambulance as they are evacuated from Mariupol, before an anticipated prisoner-swap to return them to Ukraine
Wounded men lie on stretchers as they are evacuated from Azovstal steel works in Mariupol – the first time in 82 days of fighting that any soldiers have been allowed out of the city
Ukrainian solders who are uninjured are taken on a bus to Russian-held territory, where they will remain captive until they can be traded back to Kyiv as part of a prisoner swap
Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, said those already rescued from Azovstal are being taken to two locations – the wounded to a town called Novoazovsk around 30 miles east and the remainder going to Olenivka, which is 55 miles to the north. Both are under the control of Russian separatist groups.
From there, Malyar said, they will be exchanged for Russian captives and allowed to return to Ukraine.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, an American think-tank, say Russia’s initial battleplan seems to have been to surround Ukrainian forces in a pocket of territory by pushing south from Izyum and north from Donetsk in the hopes of forcing the surrender of a large part of the county’s army.
But after weeks of heavy fighting with little progress on either front, it appears Russia has downgraded its aims.
Taking control of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, combined with the capture of Mariupol, could prompt Putin to claim Luhansk and Donetsk regions – which together make up the Donbas – are ‘liberated’, though in reality Ukraine would still control large parts of the latter.
The ‘liberation’ of Donbas and opening of a land corridor to Crimea may then be enough for the despot to declare overall victory and attempt to strike some kind of peace deal with Ukraine to end the fighting.
But it remains far from certain that taking the cities is within Russia’s abilities, and still less certain that Ukraine would accept any kind of ceasefire – fearing that Putin will use it as an excuse to rearm and attack again in future.
Severodonetsk and Lysychansk have been turned into miniature fortresses by defenders, who last week inflicted a humiliating loss on Russians trying to cross the Donets river – destroying an entire battalion in the process.
Meanwhile Dymtro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign secretary, has said that victory for Kyiv now entails pushing Russia out of Ukraine’s borders – including returning the whole of Donbas and Crimea to Ukrainian control.
The plan is ambitious but not unthinkable. Ukraine has already successfully pushed Russian forces away from the capital Kyiv, and is on the verge of pushing Putin’s troops away from the second-city of Kharkiv – filming themselves at the Russian border at the weekend.
From there, Kyiv’s men could attempt to counter-attack into Luhansk in and effort to cut supply lines connecting Russia to its frontline troops – though they also face the challenge of having to attack across the Donets River.
If that happens, the Russian force massed in Donbas would be badly exposed to Ukrainian counter-attacks, and face running out of fuel and ammunition.
Despite the resources of its giant neighbour, Ukraine has managed to repel the Russian army for longer than many expected, fortified by weapons and cash from Western allies.
Ukrainian officials say that Russian troops are withdrawing from around Kharkiv and being transferred to Donbas, an eastern area near the Russian border which has become Moscow’s new military focus.
Russian troops and armoured vehicles wait outside the steel works in Mariupol, as the last Ukrainian defenders announce they have completed their mission and will be evacuated
Once the last of the Ukrainian soldiers are taken out of the plant, it will leave Russia in full control of Mariupol – making it the largest city to fall to Putin’s men during the war
Russian troops wait to receive the first batch of Ukrainian defenders evacuated from inside Azovstal, in Mariupol, after their commander announced the end of their mission
A Russian soldier bearing a ‘Z’ patch on his arm – a symbol of the invasion – stands guard with his rifle outside the Azovstal steel works as the Ukrainian defenders are brought out
A soldier with a rifle slung across his chest stands guard next to a vehicle marked with the ‘Z’ invasion symbol
‘The armed forces of Ukraine are repelling constant attacks in those areas where Russia is still trying to advance,’ President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address.
‘Severodonetsk and other cities in Donbas remain the main targets for the occupiers.’
Taking Severodonetsk, the easternmost city held by Ukraine, would grant the Kremlin de facto control of Lugansk, one of two regions – along with Donetsk – that comprise Donbas.
Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday has said Russian troops were striking the city ‘without stopping’, and early Tuesday he said two buildings of the city’s general hospital had been hit overnight.
‘We have ten dead and three wounded in the region,’ he wrote on Telegram.
Severodonetsk’s mayor has said the city is almost surrounded by Russian troops and pro-Kremlin separatists.
But Russia’s attempt to completely encircle it has been repelled with heavy equipment losses, while Russian-occupied railway bridges were blown up, Ukrainian officials said.
Russian shelling continued across the whole country overnight, with air sirens heard throughout Ukraine in the early hours of Tuesday.
In the western city of Lviv, an official from the Regional Military Administration said a military infrastructure facility ‘almost on the border with Poland’ had been hit.
The army’s southern operational command said Odessa and Mykolaiv had been struck, and that there had been victims in both cities.
In a Facebook post, it accused Russian forces of using indiscriminate cluster munitions in the centre of Mykolaiv.
With Moscow showing no sign of relenting nearly three months into its invasion, Finland and Sweden are poised to give up decades of military non-alignment by joining the NATO military alliance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the move poses ‘no direct threat for us… but the expansion of military infrastructure to these territories will certainly provoke our response.’
Putin’s reaction was more moderate than comments earlier Monday from deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, who had called the expansion a ‘grave mistake with far-reaching consequences’.
The move is not a done deal in any case, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday confirming his country’s intention to block the applications, accusing Finland and Sweden of harbouring terror groups, including outlawed Kurdish militants.
Any membership bid must be unanimously approved by NATO’s 30 nations.
But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced confidence Sunday that Sweden and Finland would join NATO despite Turkey’s opposition.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will meet Blinken in Washington on Wednesday, where Ankara’s objections are expected to figure high on the agenda.
European Union foreign ministers met Monday to discuss their own attempt to up the pressure on Russia by imposing unprecedented economic sanctions, including a ban on Russian oil.
The proposal has so far been blocked by Hungary over the cost.
‘We are unhappy with the fact that the oil embargo is not there,’ Ukraine’s top diplomat Dmytro Kuleba said afterwards.
‘It’s clear who’s holding up the issue. But time is running out because every day Russia keeps making money and investing this money into the war.’
One of the last images taken by Ukrainian troops inside Azovstal shows a solider standing in a light beam coming down from above, as he prepares to be evacuated after 82 days
As wounded soldiers were evacuated earlier today, incredible photos were shared online showing inside the besieged plant