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As the defense of Mariupol ends, fighting in eastern Ukraine rages on

Pentagon spokesman says Russia’s progress in the Donbas region is slow, incremental and uneven

A person walks past a building heavily damaged during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on Friday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

A leader of the far-right Azov Regiment said Friday that the group had been ordered to cease its last-ditch defense of Mariupol, which has been gutted by the Russian military, and that the effort will now focus on saving lives and removing the dead.

“Glory to Ukraine! 86 days of the defense of Mariupol,” the commander of the regiment, Denys Prokopenko, said in a video posted to Telegram. “The senior military leadership has issued an order on saving the life and health of the garrison’s servicemen and termination of the defense of the city.”

Hours later, Russia’s Ministry of Defense declared on Telegram that the Azovstal steel plant’s underground tunnels “have come under full control of the Russian Armed Forces," saying “the last group of 531 militants surrendered.”

The defeat comes as Russian forces step up attacks in other areas of Ukraine, and as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky declared that the eastern Donbas region is being “completely destroyed.”

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The defense of Mariupol alone cost the Ukrainian forces a “very large number” of pilots, Zelensky said during a national telethon, according to Interfax. It is unclear how those losses may affect Ukraine’s efforts to defend other territory, even as Western supplies flow into the country.

As Zelensky eulogized the Mariupol fighters for their heroism, he accused Russian of committing “absolute evil” for striking a cultural center in the Kharkiv region, injuring seven — including an 11-year-old child. Meanwhile, strikes on a school in Severodonetsk, where more than 200 people had been hiding, left three dead Friday.

In Washington, U.S. officials attempted to paint a more positive picture of Ukraine’s posture, despite the loss of Mariupol. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby noted that while Russia had made “some incremental progress in the Donbas, it is incremental, it is slow, it is uneven and the Ukrainians continue to push back,” particularly around the Kharkiv region.

“Territory is changing hands every single day,” Kirby said.

There is also evidence Russia still appears to be suffering from staffing shortages nearly three months into the invasion. Russian leaders acknowledged Friday that they are considering a bill to allow citizens older than 40 and foreigners older than 30 to join the Russian army as contract fighters, in order to go to the front in Ukraine.

“Highly professional specialists are needed,” the State Duma wrote on its website, according to Reuters.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin also said he was considering creating “a state information protection system” in response to cyberattacks and “a war in the media" that “has been unleashed against Russia."

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The comments were reported by Ukrainian Pravda as occurring during an online meeting of Russia’s Security Council. They are the latest sign Putin is worried that official propaganda about Russia’s operations in Ukraine is being undermined by other sources of information.

The United States and other Western allies are hoping to help Ukraine capitalize on Russian weaknesses to gain an advantage in the Donbas before the Kremlin is able to replenish its war effort.

President Biden, who is visiting Asia, was expected to sign a bill into law that would give him authority to send an additional $40 billion worth of help to Ukraine, including military assistance. Pentagon officials have estimated that the aid would sustain U.S. military assistance to Kyiv for the next five months.

The Group of Seven, meeting in Bonn, Germany on Friday, agreed to give Ukraine $20 billion of short-term support — about half of which would come from the $40 billion awaiting Biden’s signature. The aid would be aimed at helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy, which is reeling from the damage to infrastructure as well as the mounting costs of fighting the war.

But the message from Ukraine on Friday was not all one of gratitude. While foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba praised individual western nations Friday for “awesome and important work" in support of Ukraine, he also slammed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying the alliance has “done nothing” to help.

“Could you name at least one consensus decision made by NATO over the past three months that would benefit and help Ukraine?” Kuleba said during the national telethon.

Russia's Lavrov tries to keep the Kremlin's few allies onside

While NATO has beefed up its defensive posture across its own territory, the alliance has resisted pressure from Kyiv to directly involve itself in the conflict, such as by enforcing a no-fly zone over the country.

Chief military officers from NATO countries met in Brussels this week to discuss the conflict in Ukraine, as well as Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to join the alliance. While the applications received a positive response from the United States and other leading NATO powers, Turkey blocked the start of formal accession talks this week.

Still, Russia has started to retaliate against the envisioned NATO expansion. Finland’s state-owned energy firm Gasum announced Friday that Russia’s Gazprom will stop supplying the country with natural gas as of Saturday morning. Russia’s state-owned energy company RAO Nordic already halted electricity exports to Finland.

Finland shares a border with Russia; if it successfully joins NATO, it will more than double NATO’s physical borders with Russia.

Stein reported from Bonn, Germany. Annabelle Chapman in Paris, Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; Liz Sly in London; and Mike DeBonis and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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