Russia claims full control of Mariupol, 'complete liberation' of holdout steel mill

Russia claimed to have captured Mariupol on Friday in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, following a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of the strategic port city to a smoking ruin, with over 20,000 civilians feared dead.

3-month siege reduced much of the strategic port city to a smoking ruin

Uncertainty for Mariupol troops, Russia steps up assault in Eastern Ukraine

1 month ago
Duration 2:06
Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at the besieged Mariupol steel plant face an uncertain future as some of them are sent to a former penal colony by Russia. In the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky is accusing Russian forces of ‘completely destroying’ the area.

Updates from Day 86 of the invasion

  • Russian forces continue attacking Lysychansk, Severodonetsk.

  • Luhansk governor says Russia now controls 90% of the eastern region.

  • Putin says Russia has faced a barrage of cyberattacks from the West.

Russia claimed to have captured Mariupol on Friday in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, following a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of the strategic port city to a smoking ruin, with over 20,000 civilians feared dead.

There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin the "complete liberation" of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol — the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance — and the city as a whole, spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said.

Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the ministry as saying that a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at Azovstal had laid down their arms and surrendered since Monday, including over 500 on Friday.

PHOTOS | Ukrainian soldiers surrender Azovstal: 

The steelworks had been the site of fierce fighting for weeks. The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out in the plant, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire before their government ordered them to abandon its defence and save their lives.

The Azovstal complex covers 11 square kilometres and is threaded with about 24 kilometres of tunnels and bunkers. Earlier in May, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the plant during humanitarian ceasefires.

The complete takeover of Mariupol gives Putin a badly needed military victory in the war he began on Feb. 24 — a conflict that was supposed to have been a quick and easy victory for the Kremlin but instead has seen the failure to take the capital of Kyiv, a pullback of its forces to refocus on battles in Eastern Ukraine and even the sinking of Russia's flagship of its Black Sea fleet, the Moskva.

Mariupol is located in Donetsk, which, along with Luhansk, make up the Donbas — a mostly Russian-speaking eastern region that has been partly held by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles drives along a road near Mariupol, in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, on Friday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
Locals walk past a heavily damaged residential building in Mariupol on Friday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Military analysts say the city's capture at this point holds more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow's control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left.

Russia had sought control of Mariupol, on the coast of the Sea of Azov, to complete a land corridor from the Donbas to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to join the growing battle for control of the Donbas region. It would also deprive Ukraine of a vital port.

The city endured some of the worst suffering of the war. An estimated 100,000 people remained from a prewar population of 450,000, many trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Constant bombardment has left behind shattered and charred buildings in row after row of destroyed apartment blocks and ruined neighbourhoods.

Increased attacks in Donbas

Russian forces on Friday continued attacking the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk in Ukraine's eastern region of Luhansk to try to cut the area off from the rest of Ukraine, the region's governor said.

Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk, said Russian forces were especially focused on the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway, the only road for evacuating people and delivering humanitarian supplies.

"The road is extremely important because it's the only connection to other regions of the country," he said via email. "The Russians are trying to cut us off from it, to encircle the Luhansk region."

A burning vehicle is seen near Lysychansk on Friday. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian forces shelled the road constantly from multiple directions, but Ukrainian armoured transports were still able to get through, Haidai said.

Moscow's troops have been trying for weeks to seize Severodonetsk, a key city in the Donbas. One of Friday's attacks was on a school in Severodonetsk that was sheltering more than 200 people, many of them children, Haidai said. Three adults were killed, he said on messaging app Telegram.

According to Haidai, 12 people were killed in Severodonetsk. It was not immediately clear if that included the three at the school. In addition, more than 60 houses were destroyed across the region, he said.

Dmytro Mosur, 32, who lost his wife during shelling in nearby Severodonetsk on May 17, holds his two-year-old twin daughters as they wait to be extricated from Lysychansk on Friday. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian forces now control 90 per cent of Luhansk, Haidai said, but he also noted the attack on Severodonetsk failed — "the Russians suffered personnel losses and retreated." His account could not be independently verified.

Haidai said another city, Rubizhne, has been "completely destroyed," and "its fate can be compared to that of Mariupol."

Pro-Moscow separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for the past eight years and held a considerable swath of it before Russia's invasion. But the effort by Putin's troops to take more territory there has been slow-going.

In a sign of Russia's frustration with the war, some senior commanders have been fired in recent weeks, according to Britain's Defence Ministry. 

Russian forces elsewhere in Ukraine continued to blast away at targets, some of them civilian.

In the village of Velyka Kostromka, west of the Donbas, explosions in the middle of the night Thursday shook Iryna Martsyniuk's house to its foundation. Roof timbers splintered and windows shattered, sending shards of glass into a wall near three sleeping children.

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"There were flashes everywhere," Martsyniuk said. "There was smoke everywhere."

She said she grabbed the children and ran toward the home's entrance, "but the corridor wasn't there anymore. Instead, we saw the starry night."

They ran down the road to a neighbour's home, where they hid in the basement.

Around 20 other houses were damaged and two people were lightly wounded, said Olha Shaytanova, head of the village.

Putin alleges Western cyberattacks

Putin says his country has faced a barrage of cyberattacks from the West amid the invasion of Ukraine but has successfully fended them off.

Speaking Friday to members of Russia's Security Council, Putin noted that "the challenges in this area have become even more pressing, serious and extensive."

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Friday. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

He charged that "an outright aggression has been unleashed against Russia, a war has been waged in the information space."

Putin added that "the cyber-aggression against us, the same as the attack on Russia by sanctions in general, has failed."

He ordered officials to "perfect and enhance the mechanisms of ensuring information security at critically important industrial facilities which have a direct bearing on our country's defensive capability, and the stable development of the economic and social spheres."