Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday declared victory in the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol even as his advisers acknowledged that thousands of Ukrainian fighters are still holed up in a steel plant, The Washington Post reports.
“The work of the armed forces to liberate Mariupol has been a success. Congratulations,” Putin said in a choreographed, televised meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who has been mysteriously missing from the public eye for weeks.
Despite his claim to victory, Shoigu acknowledged there are “around 2,000” Ukrainian troops at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works.
Despite Russia’s demand that the holdouts surrender, the remaining troops have refused to give up.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that a “few thousand people” remain at the plant and about 120,000 civilians are still trapped in the bombed-out city.
Putin orders blockade:
Though Russia initially said it planned to storm the steel plant if the Ukrainians don’t surrender, Putin at Thursday’s meeting said he had “canceled” the operation to preserve the safety of Russian troops.
Putin instead ordered Shoigu to block off the plant so much “that even a fly could not get through.”
Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said that Russia’s claim to victory was premature.
“They cannot physically take Azovstal, they have understood; they have experienced huge losses there,” he said. “Our defenders are continuing to hold on to it.”
Zelensky says nothing has changed:
Zelensky said Thursday that while Russia had captured “most of Mariupol long ago,” the situation in the part of the city controlled by Ukrainian troops “has practically not changed since yesterday.”
Zelensky slammed Russia for “blocking” talks to establish humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from the city and said that the Russian government rejected Ukraine’s offer to send negotiators to Mariupol to settle the standoff.