A curious development in the Ukraine war and Vladimir Putin’s prosecution of it. For weeks, Russian forces have besieged the port city of Mariupol, which might have been a strategic target at first. Putin’s forces have destroyed whatever strategic value it has as a port, although controlling the turf will still make it easier to link the Donbas to Crimea and vice versa.
The remaining Ukrainian forces have fallen back to the massive, sprawling Azovstal steel plant, along with a significant number of civilians. They called yesterday for either evacuation or reinforcements, and their survival was estimated in hours. Today, however, Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu cut this video to declare victory while calling off any assault on the encircled forces:
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces not to storm the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged port city of Mariupol on Thursday — the sprawling Azovstal steel plant — instead telling his troops to block it “so that not even a fly can get through.”
Putin said storming the facility, with its network of underground tunnels, would be “impractical.” A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by the Russians’ estimate, remained in the plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers spread out across about 4 square miles. Zelenskyy said about 1,000 civilians were also trapped.
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the rest of the city beyond the plant has been “liberated” – a term Russian officials use to refer to areas of Ukraine they have seized. Putin hailed that as a “success.”
Shoigu said the plant was “securely blocked.”
Worth noting, however, that the mayor of Mariupol disputes that the city has fallen at all:
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told ABC News he thinks his city will hold out, saying Russian forces have “been fighting our boys for 57 days and they still can’t win.”
The mayor’s comments come hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that his siege of Mariupol had been a success, congratulating his defense minister and thanking Russian troops. Putin also ordered troops to abandon their assault on the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant, the last holdout for Ukrainian troops in the port city.
Boychenko said 100,00 civilians remain, including 1,000 in the steel plant.
The most curious part of this little Kabuki theater presentation is Putin’s claim to worry about “preserving the life and health of our soldiers and officers.” Since when? This is the same Putin that had his men camping for weeks in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, an area and grounds so radioactive that people are advised to hustle while going through it, let alone refrain from stopping even for a short period of time. Putin has lost men by the thousands and perhaps by the tens of thousands in ill-advised frontal assaults on fortified defenses, apparently under the impression that the Ukrainians wouldn’t resist the Russians in the first place.
More to the point, they’re about to unroll the same strategy in the Donbas, albeit with somewhat improved organization. Ukrainians got caught by surprise in the initial invasion in the north, with little time to prepare their defensive positions. They’ve built defensive positions in Luhansk and Donetsk for eight years. Mariupol didn’t have nearly as much defensive works, and Russians have taken weeks just to encircle it. They may not have many more troops to waste in eliminating this last pocket of resistance, which might be the only context in which Putin’s claim of care for the lives of his troops makes much sense.
Leaving the pocket to remain endangers all of the objectives that Putin hoped to gain in “liberating” Mariupol,” too. It’s also a failure to achieve a morale victory as well as a safe strategic position:
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.
One has to wonder whether the Russians anticipate a Ukrainian counter-offensive to relieve Mariupol in the near future. They would have to sustain heavy losses to attack the fortified position in the steel plant, and those losses might make it impossible to oppose any significant counter-offensive. It’s no secret that the city is just as strategic to Ukraine as it is to Russia, and they will want to take it back as soon as they can rationally mount an attack with any chance to succeed. Putin might have surveyed the battlefield and determined that he can’t afford to weaken himself any further than he already has around Mariupol — at least not while launching another offensive in Donbas.
Ukraine still wants to negotiate a withdrawal of those forces and of civilians still trapped in Azovstal:
Ukrainian officials, who all but admitted that Mariupol had fallen, said Thursday that there would be additional attempts to evacuate civilians from the region. They also said they wanted to negotiate the status of the city.
Speaking on the messaging app Telegram, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that “we demand from the Russians an urgent humanitarian corridor from the Mariupol plant Azovstal. There are now about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers. They all need to be removed from Azovstal today.”
Separately, a senior Ukrainian official said he was prepared to travel to Mariupol for new negotiations “without any conditions” after several previous rounds of talks failed to produce a cease-fire.
“We’re ready to to hold a ‘special round of negotiations’ right in Mariupol,” said presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak. “One on one. Two on two. To save our guys, Azov, military, children, the living and the wounded.”
Under normal circumstances, there wouldn’t be anything to negotiate. Putin’s sudden hesitancy in ordering an assault on Azovstal might indicate that he’s looking for a cheap way to secure this part of his line, too.
Almost equally curious is the sudden reappearance of Shoigu at Putin’s side, or at least across the ridiculously small table used for this appearance. A week ago, Shoigu had reportedly been sidelined by a major heart attack — or so one exp-pat dissident claimed. Shoigu hasn’t been seen in a while recently, leading to speculation that he might have been on the receiving end of Putin’s wrath over how badly the Russian military has performed thus far. Putin did undercut Shoigu somewhat by appointing a field marshal of sorts to run the war rather than Shoigu running it himself, certainly not a sign of great confidence.
And yet, here’s Shoigu playing the foil for Putin’s propaganda film in declaring Mariupol’s “liberation” rather than continuing to fight there. Perhaps Putin still needs Shoigu to sell the Chip Diller line that all is well, or maybe Putin realizes that booting Shoigu won’t improve the situation anyway. These days, Putin may need as many allies as he can get around those oddball tables.
“Sir, everyone is making fun of your ridiculously long table.”
“Kill them, then find me the smallest meeting table rubles can buy” pic.twitter.com/zAIGQuJ7IE
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) April 21, 2022
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