By Associated Press
Russia’s claimed seizure of a Mariupol steel plant that became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a sorely needed victory in the war he began, capping a nearly three-month siege that left a city in ruins and more than 20,000 residents feared dead.
After the Russian Defense Ministry announced late Friday that its forces had removed the last Ukrainian fighters from the plant’s miles of underground tunnels, concern mounted for the Ukrainian defenders who now are prisoners in Russian hands .
Denis Pushilin, the head of an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, said Saturday that the Ukrainians considered heroes by their fellow citizens were sure to face a tribunal for their wartime actions.
“I believe that a tribunal is inevitable here. I believe that justice must be restored. There is a request for this from ordinary people, society, and, probably, the sane part of the world community,” Russian state news agency Tass quoted Pushilin as saying.
Russian officials and state media repeatedly have tried to characterize the fighters who holed up in the Azovstal steel plant as neo-Nazis. Among the plant’s more than 2,400 defenders were members of the Azov Regiment, a national guard unit with roots in the far right.
The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim of capturing Azovstal, which for weeks remained Mariupol’s last holdout of Ukrainian resistance, and with it completing Moscow’s long-sought goal of controlling the city , home to a strategic seaport.
Ukraine’s military this week told the fighters holed up in the plant, hundreds of them wounded, that their mission was complete and they could come out. It described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.
The end of the battle for Mariupol would help Putin offset some stinging setbacks, including the failure of Russian troops to take over Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, the sinking of the Russian Navy’s flagship in the Black Sea and the continued resistance that has stalled an offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The impact of Russia’s declared victory on the broader war in Ukraine remained unclear. Many Russian troops already had been redeployed from Mariupol to elsewhere in the conflict, which began with the Russian invasion of its neighbor on Feb. 24.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov reported Saturday that Russia had destroyed a Ukrainian special-operations base in Black Sea region of Odesa as well as significant cache of Western-supplied weapons in northern Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region. There was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.
In its morning operational report, the Ukrainian military general staff reported heavy fighting in much of eastern Ukraine, including the areas of Sievierodonetsk, Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
Since failing to capture Kyiv, Russia focused its offensive in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. The Russia-backed separatists have controlled parts of the Donbas region since 2014, and Moscow wants to expand the territory under its control.
Taking Mariupol furthers Russia’s quest to essentially create a land bridge from Russia via much of the Donbas area bordering Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, expressed gratitude to his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, who signed off Saturday on a fresh, $40 billion infusion of aid for the war-ravaged nation. Half of the funding provides military assistance.
Zelenskyy, in remarks to the traumatized nation late Friday, demanded anew that Russia pay “in one way or another for everything it has destroyed in Ukraine. Every burned house. Every ruined school, ruined hospital. Each blown up house of culture and infrastructure facility. Every destroyed enterprise.”
“Of course, the Russian state will not even recognize that it is an aggressor,” he continued. “But its recognition is not required.”
Mariupol, which is part of the Donbas, was blockaded early in the war and became a frightening example to people elsewhere in the country of the hunger, terror and death they might face if the Russians surrounded their communities.