KYIV – Russia has moved closer to control of the Donbass region of Ukraine, claiming victory in a month-long battle for the Mariupol steel plant and launching a major offensive in the remaining Ukrainian-occupied territory in the province of Luhansk.
Russia’s Defense Ministry says the last Ukrainian troops surrendered on Friday at the destroyed Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. This ended the most destructive blockade of the war.
“The territory of Azovostal Metallurgical Plant … has been completely liberated,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that 2,439 guards had surrendered in the past few days, including 531 in the final group.
Hours earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had said that the last guard of the steelwork had been told by the Ukrainian military that they could come out and save their lives. Ukrainians did not immediately confirm Azvastal’s figures.
Russia has also launched what appears to be a major offensive to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-controlled territory in the province of Luhansk, with Moscow declaring it an independent state, one of two southeastern Ukrainian provinces.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said in his telegram that “the Russian army has started a very intensive destruction of the city of Siviarodnetsk, the intensity of the shelling has doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying houses”.
Early Saturday morning, air sirens were sounding in most parts of Ukraine, including the Kyiv capital region and the southern port of Odessa.
Occupying the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, most of which are part of Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region, will allow Moscow to claim victory after declaring last month that it now intends to do so.
Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front.
“This will be critical in the next few weeks of the conflict,” said Matthew Bullegu, an expert at the Chatham House think tank in London. “And it depends on how effective they are in conquering the lands of Sieverodonetsk and its environs.”
Ukraine’s General Staff said it had repulsed an attack on Siviarodonetsk, which it described as a large Russian operation on a stretch of front line.
In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic” would end soon.
Battle for Mariupol
The end of the siege of Mariupol was an important symbolic moment for Russia, after several catastrophes since the invasion began on 24 February, but it came at the cost of mass destruction.
Zelensky says the region has been “completely destroyed” by Russia and has proposed a formal agreement with the country’s allies to secure Russian compensation for the damage done by its forces.
Natalia Zaritska, the wife of an Azvastal fighter who surrendered, said she had not heard from him since the telegram was exchanged two days ago. He believed that he was still alive.
“The situation is really difficult and terrible and my husband is on the verge of captivity from one hell to another, from the Azovstal steel plant to a prison,” Zaritska said in Istanbul, where he and other relatives lobbied to help save Turkey. Warrior
The Red Cross says it has registered hundreds of Ukrainians who surrendered as prisoners of war at the plant, and Kiev says it wants a prisoner exchange. Moscow has said the detainees will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have been quoted as saying that some should be tried or even executed.
In Ukraine, Russian forces have moved in the vicinity of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in recent weeks, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and Kyiv region at the end of March.
But they still control a large part of the south and east, and the end of the war in Mariupol means that the region is now largely intact.
As a sign of Russia’s goal of escalating its war effort, Moscow’s parliament has said it will consider allowing Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to join the military.
Last week, Sweden and Finland also applied to join NATO, although Turkey has threatened to block them, accusing the Nordic countries of harboring Kurdish militants.
A few weeks after the threat of retaliation, Putin said this week that neither Finnish nor Swedish NATO membership represents a threat unless the alliance sends new weapons or troops. Nonetheless, Shoigu said Friday that Moscow plans to strengthen its forces nearby in response to its new threats.
(Reporting by Natalia Genetes, Max Hender, Tom Balmforth in Kiev and Reuters Bureau; Writing by Peter Graf, Patricia Gingerley and Richard Pulin; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bradley Parrett)