KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces not to storm the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged city of Mariupol on Thursday but instead to block it “so that not even a fly comes through.”
His defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the rest of the city beyond the sprawling Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian forces were holed has been “liberated” — as Russian officials refer to areas of Ukraine they have seized. Putin hailed that as a “success.”
But leaving the plant in Ukrainian hands robs the Russians of the ability to declare complete victory in Mariupol, which has seen some of the most dramatic fighting of the war and whose capture has both strategic and symbolic importance.
The scale of suffering there has made it a worldwide focal point, and its definitive fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, and free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbas.
Shoigu said the plant was “securely blocked.”
Putin and Shoigu’s comments appeared to reflect a change in strategy in Mariupol, where the Russians previously seemed determined to take every last inch of the city. But it was not clear what it would mean in practical terms.
Ukrainian officials did not comment on the latest remarks, but earlier said four buses with civilians managed to escape from the city after several unsuccessful attempts. Thousands more remain the city, much of which has been reduced to a smoking ruin in a nearly two-month siege, with over 20,000 people feared dead.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said another attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol would be made Thursday — though it was not clear how the latest comments would affect that.
In Kyiv, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen became the latest European leaders to show support with a visit to the capital. They were due to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who warned in a video address overnight that the Russians were not “abandoning their attempts to score at least some victory by launching a new, large-scale offensive.”
“The West stands together to support the Ukrainian people,” Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said it submitted a draft of its demands for ending the war, and the West raced to supply Ukraine with heavier weapons to counter the Russians’ new drive to seize the industrial east.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said in an assessment that Russia likely desires to demonstrate significant successes ahead of its annual May 9 Victory Day celebrations. “This could affect how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date.”
As fears grew for the fate of civilians in Mariupol, the Kyiv regional police said Thursday that two mass graves with nine bodies were discovered in the city of Borodyanka, northwest of the capital. The findings added to thousands of civilians reported killed by Russian forces, who have been accused of wholesale abuses of Ukrainians.
Head of the Kyiv regional police, Andriy Nebytov, said two women and a teenager were among the “civilians killed by the Russian occupiers.”
“I want to stress that these people are civilians. The Russian military deliberately shot civilians that didn’t put up any resistance and didn’t pose any threat,” Nebytov said, adding that some of the victims were apparently tortured.
With global tensions running high, Russia reported the first successful test launch of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat. President Vladimir Putin boasted that it can overcome any missile defense system and make those who threaten Russia “think twice.” The head of the Russian state aerospace agency called the launch out of northern Russia “a present to NATO.”
The Pentagon described the test as “routine” and said it wasn’t considered a threat.
On the battlefield, Ukraine said Moscow continued to mount assaults across the east, probing for weak points in Ukrainian defensive lines. Russia said it launched hundreds of missile and air attacks on targets that included concentrations of troops and vehicles.
The Kremlin’s stated goal is the capture of the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking eastern region that is home to coal mines, metal plants and heavy-equipment factories. Detaching it from the rest of Ukraine would give Putin a badly needed victory two months into the war, after the botched attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv.
The U.K. Defense Ministry said Russian forces were advancing from staging areas in the Donbas toward Kramatorsk, which continues to suffer from persistent rocket attacks.
The Luhansk governor said Russian forces control 80% of his region, which is one of two that make up the Donbas. Before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the Kyiv government controlled 60% of the Luhansk region.
Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the Russians, after seizing the small city of Kreminna, are now threatening the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna. He urged all residents to evacuate immediately.
“The occupiers control only parts of these cities, unable to break through to the centers,” Haidai said on the messaging app Telegram.
Analysts have said the offensive in the east could become a war of attrition as Russia faces Ukraine’s most experienced, battle-hardened troops, who have fought pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas for eight years.
Russia said it presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands for ending the conflict — days after Putin said the talks were at a “dead end.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “the ball is in their court, we’re waiting for a response.” He gave no details on the draft, and it was not clear when it was sent or whether it offered anything new to the Ukrainians, who presented their own demands last month.
Zelenskyy said he had not seen or heard of the proposal, though one of his top advisers said the Ukrainian side was reviewing it.