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Putin claims ‘success’ in Mariupol as Russia’s annual Victory Day nears

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin on April 21. (Russian Presidential Press Service/AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the shattered Ukrainian port city of Mariupol — even as his advisers acknowledged that thousands of Ukrainian fighters remain holed up in a steel plant there and Ukraine’s president denied that Russia had made new advances.

“The work of the armed forces to liberate Mariupol has been a success. Congratulations,” Putin said, addressing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during a rare, televised meeting.

Putin added that he had “canceled” plans to storm the plant and forcibly oust the remaining Ukrainians, who for days have refused Russia’s demand to surrender.

The move to claim victory — while Shoigu estimated that “around 2,000″ Ukrainian troops remain in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works — appears to sidestep the difficulty and danger of seizing the complex, which occupies four square miles and has a sprawling subterranean network.

Rejecting Putin’s claim, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday that while Russia had captured “most of Mariupol long ago,” Ukrainian troops remained in “a part of the city” where the situation “has practically not changed since yesterday.”

“This situation is difficult,” Zelensky said during a news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who arrived in Ukraine’s capital Thursday.

Ukraine for days has rebuffed Russia’s demands to surrender its last patch in Mariupol, with a commander of the troops at the Azovstal plant telling The Washington Post that they would fight until the bitter end.

Zelensky estimated that “a few thousand people” remained at the steel plant site, and that about 120,000 civilians were still trapped in the besieged port city.

He accused Russia on Thursday of “blocking” the process of establishing humanitarian corridors for civilians to safely escape, though he noted that some residents had found their own ways to leave. He also said Moscow had rebuffed Kyiv’s offer to send senior officials to Mariupol for negotiations to end the stand off.

On April 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the siege of Mariupol a “success.” Here’s a look back at key moments in the battle for Ukraine’s strategic port city. (Video: Leila Barghouty/The Washington Post)

How a Mariupol steel plant became a holdout for the city’s resistance

Western officials have posited that Putin’s declaration of victory may be part of efforts to accelerate Russia’s campaign ahead of its annual Victory Day celebrations. Russia’s premier national holiday, celebrated on May 9 in the country, marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

Britain said Thursday that Russia aimed to demonstrate “significant successes” on the battleground before May 9. Western defense officials say Putin is determined to take Mariupol and make headway in Donbas, the region of eastern Ukraine bordering Russia, by that date, The Post previously reported.

What Victory Day means for Russian identity

Putin’s apparent decision to turn instead to a blockade of the Ukrainians at the plant — saying that it should be blocked off so “that even a fly could not get through” — would allow the Kremlin to declare a quick victory in Mariupol and free up resources for campaigns it is launching elsewhere, even though the city has not completely fallen.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Thursday that Russian claims of victory in Mariupol are 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.”

Arestovych speculated that Russia might not have the resources to storm Azovstal, having moved some of its troops away from Mariupol and toward the border of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where a new offensive is underway. “These preliminary announcements of victories ... show that the Russians have become aware of the futility of their latest active operation at this stage of the war,” Arestovych said.

For weeks, Russian forces have bombarded the city, which had a prewar population of about 440,000, leaving it largely destroyed. Shoigu estimated that Russia will now need only a few days to wrap up military action at the plant. Mariupol has important practical and symbolic significance for Moscow, with any capture allowing for the completion of a land bridge to the annexed Crimean Peninsula from the Russian mainland.

Mariupol fighters ‘dying underground’ at steel plant, commander says

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, demanded “an urgent humanitarian corridor” be put into place for the Azovstal plant Thursday, saying about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers were holed up there.

Late Wednesday, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, said Kyiv was prepared to hold a “special round of negotiations” in Mariupol, in an apparent last-ditch effort to negotiate for the evacuation of its remaining fighters and civilians.

The offer has so far been rebuffed by Moscow, according to Zelensky, who has also floated the idea of exchanging Russian military prisoners for the release of Ukrainian civilians in Mariupol. Zelensky said Wednesday that “we are ready to exchange our people for military prisoners. We are ready for any formats for exchange.”

Meanwhile, the mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, called for a cease-fire around the Azovstal plant Thursday, saying: “The situation is very difficult. … The boys [Ukrainian fighters] want only one thing: for there to be a cease-fire.”

Many in Mariupol, a city in Ukraine’s southeast Donetsk region, have traditionally harbored sympathies with nearby Russia, maintaining close cultural and linguistic ties. But Boychenko said Russian forces were “ruining” the city and “destroying our state.”

The commander of the soldiers making a stand at the Azovstal complex, in audio messages to The Post on Wednesday, said people were being forced to “rot” in the plant, which he also said was being bombed and “torn up by artillery.”

“They’re dying underground — the wounded and the living there,” said Maj. Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade.

People were seen at a makeshift market in the besieged port city of Mariupol on April 19 as Russia gave a new deadline to surrender. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Russia, for its part, said that it had created a path to safety for civilians at the steel plant but that no one had used the route.

Fighting is continuing to intensify in Ukraine’s east after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Moscow would seek the “complete liberation” of Donetsk and Luhansk as part of the “next phase” of its war in Ukraine. The governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said Russian forces now control 80 percent of the area, part of embattled Donbas.

Elsewhere, Russian forces were advancing toward the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to Britain’s Defense Ministry, which said the city was facing “persistent” rocket attacks. In Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, the governor said Thursday that the area was being bombarded by Russian rockets and shelling.

Haidai also said Russian forces were seeking a foothold in the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna after gaining control of the city of Kreminna. In Popasna, which has seen heavy fighting, Haidai said Thursday that more than 100 people had died and that Russian forces control about half the city. The Post could not independently verify that claim.

Lateshia Beachum, Annabelle Timsit and Paulina Villegas contributed to this report.

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