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Opinion Putin has one last cruelty in mind for a devastated Mariupol

The Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 21. (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

Russian forces have reduced the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol almost to rubble, killing or injuring thousands of civilian residents. Of Mariupol’s original 400,000 inhabitants, perhaps 120,000 remain; most survivors managed to flee to other parts of Ukraine, but many also have been forcibly taken to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin surveyed these horrors on Thursday and pronounced himself pleased. “The work of the armed forces to liberate Mariupol has been a success,” he told Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised meeting. “Congratulations.”

In truth, the work of Russia’s armed forces is not quite done. A remnant of the city’s defenders, which Russia estimates at 2,000 or so fighters, is holed up in basements of a labyrinthine steel plant along the local coastline. Ukrainian officials say a “few thousand” people are ensconced in the fortresslike complex, but that the figure includes 500 wounded soldiers — and 1,000 noncombatant civilians. The latter category includes numerous children, according to video the fighters released (but which The Post has not independently verified). Acknowledging that it would be too risky to Russian troops to storm the place, even against an outnumbered and outgunned opponent, Mr. Putin ordered his forces not to continue assaulting the plant but instead to lay siege to it, so “that even a fly could not get through.”

In short, Mr. Putin’s concern for the lives of his own men does not extend to the lives of those in the factory who may well die of illness, starvation or thirst if his siege — as seems all too likely — succeeds. Apparently bent on taking physical control, dead or alive, of both fighters and civilians trapped inside the complex, Mr. Putin has demanded their surrender and resisted Ukrainian appeals for their evacuation to Ukrainian territory under the supervision of a third party. Until Thursday, it had been weeks since any evacuations to Ukraine from Mariupol had occurred; on that day, civilians — about 90 in number — managed to reach safety in Zaporizhzhia.

The United States, Europe and, indeed, all decent governments in the world should demand that Russia deal with this catastrophe humanely. That means negotiating something like the Ukrainians’ proposed guaranteed evacuation; if Russia will not allow such an operation to be supervised by a third country, as the Ukrainians have requested, then a neutral agency, possibly the International Committee of the Red Cross, could be tapped.

The defenders’ ammunition and food are running out, however, and nothing in Mr. Putin’s record, alas, suggests he would heed an appeal based on humanitarian concerns or international law. Satellite photos newly analyzed by The Post show that his record includes the construction of mass graves, possibly large enough to hold 3,000 bodies, in a Russian-occupied town just 12 miles from Mariupol. President Biden was therefore right to announce new shipments of heavy artillery and drones to Ukraine Thursday, to help repel the new Russian offensive in the eastern Donbas region. It may be too late to talk Mr. Putin into avoiding more unnecessary death in Mariupol; U.S.-supplied weapons will enable Ukraine to address him in a language he does understand.

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