By ELENA BECATOROS, OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and CIARAN McQUILLAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS
POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s claimed seizure of a Mariupol steel plant that became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a sorely needed victory in the war he began, capping a nearly three-month siege that left a city in ruins and more than 20,000 residents feared dead.
After the Russian Defense Ministry announced late Friday that its forces had removed the last Ukrainian fighters from the plant’s miles of underground tunnels, concern mounted for the Ukrainian defenders who now are prisoners in Russian hands.
Denis Pushilin, the head of an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, said Saturday that the Ukrainians considered heroes by their fellow citizens were sure to face a tribunal for their wartime actions.
“I believe that a tribunal is inevitable here. I believe that justice must be restored. There is a request for this from ordinary people, society, and, probably, the sane part of the world community,” Russian state news agency Tass quoted Pushilin as saying.
Russian officials and state media repeatedly have tried to characterize the fighters who holed up in the Azovstal steel plant as neo-Nazis. Among the plant’s more than 2,400 defenders were members of the Azov Regiment, a national guard unit with roots in the far right.
The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim of capturing Azovstal, which for weeks remained Mariupol’s last holdout of Ukrainian resistance, and with it completing Moscow’s long-sought goal of controlling the city, home to a strategic seaport.
Ukraine’s military this week told the fighters holed up in the plant, hundreds of them wounded, that their mission was complete, and they could come out. It described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.
The end of the battle for Mariupol would help Putin offset some stinging setbacks, including the failure of Russian troops to take over Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, the sinking of the Russian Navy’s flagship in the Black Sea and the continued resistance that has stalled an offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The impact of Russia’s declared victory on the broader war in Ukraine remained unclear. Many Russian troops already had been redeployed from Mariupol to elsewhere in the conflict, which began with the Russian invasion of its neighbour on Feb. 24.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov reported Saturday that Russia had destroyed a Ukrainian special-operations base in Black Sea region of Odesa as well as significant cache of Western-supplied weapons in northern Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region. There was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.
In its morning operational report, the Ukrainian military general staff reported heavy fighting in much of eastern Ukraine, including the areas of Sievierodonetsk, Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
Since failing to capture Kyiv, Russia focused its offensive in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. The Russia-backed separatists have controlled parts of the Donbas region since 2014, and Moscow wants to expand the territory under its control.
Taking Mariupol furthers Russia’s quest to essentially create a land bridge from Russia via much of the Donbas area bordering Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, expressed gratitude to his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, who signed off Saturday on a fresh, $40 billion infusion of aid for the war-ravaged nation. Half of the funding provides military assistance.
Zelenskyy, in remarks to the traumatized nation late Friday, demanded anew that Russia pay “in one way or another for everything it has destroyed in Ukraine. Every burned house. Every ruined school, ruined hospital. Each blown up house of culture and infrastructure facility. Every destroyed enterprise.”
“Of course, the Russian state will not even recognize that it is an aggressor,” he continued. “But its recognition is not required.”
Mariupol, which is part of the Donbas, was blockaded early in the war and became a frightening example to people elsewhere in the country of the hunger, terror and death they might face if the Russians surrounded their communities.
As the end drew near at the steel plant, wives of fighters who had held out told of what they feared would be their last contact with their husbands.
Olga Boiko, the wife of a marine, wiped away tears as she shared the words her husband wrote her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I will get in touch with you and if I will at all. Love you. Kiss you. Bye.”
The seaside steelworks, occupying some 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), had been a battleground for weeks. Drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, the dwindling group of outgunned fighters held out with the help of air drops before their government ordered them to abandon the plant.
Zelenskyy revealed in an interview published Friday that Ukrainian helicopter pilots braved Russian anti-aircraft fire to ferry in medicine, food and water to the steel mill as well as to retrieve bodies and rescue wounded fighters.
A “very large” number of the pilots died on their daring missions, he said. “They are absolutely heroic people, who knew that it would be difficult, knew that to fly would be almost impossible,” Zelenskyy said.
Russia claimed that the Azov Regiment’s commander was taken away from the plant in an armoured vehicle because of local residents’ alleged hatred for him, but no evidence of Ukrainian antipathy toward the nationalist regiment has emerged.
The Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s far-right origins in its drive to to cast the invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian authorities have threatened to put some of the steel mill’s defenders on trial for alleged war crimes and put them on trial.
With Russia controlling the city, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in Mariupol, including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theatre where hundreds of civilians had taken cover.
Satellite images in April showed what appeared to be mass graves just outside Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of concealing the slaughter by burying up to 9,000 civilians.
Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the plant during humanitarian cease-fires and spoke of the terror of ceaseless bombardment, the dank conditions underground and the fear that they wouldn’t make it out alive.
At one point in the siege, Pope Francis lamented that Mariupol had become a “city of martyrs.”
An estimated 100,000 of the 450,000 people who resided there before the war remain. Many, trapped by Russia’s siege, were left without food, water and electricity.
The chief executive of Metinvest, a multinational company which owns the Azovstal plant and another steel mill, Ilyich, in Mariupol, spoke of the city’s devastation in an interview published Saturday in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
“The Russians are trying to clean it (the city) up to hide their crimes,” the newspaper quoted Metinvest CEO Yuriy Ryzhenkov as saying. “The inhabitants are trying to make the city function, to make water supplies work again.”
“But the sewer system is damaged, there has been flooding, and infections are feared” from drinking the water, he said.
The Ilyich steelworks still has some intact infrastructure, but if the Russians try to get it running, Ukrainians will refuse to return to their jobs there, Ryzhenkov said.
“We will never work under Russian occupation,” Ryzhenkov said.
Ciaran McQuillan reported from Lviv. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press journalists Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Frances D’Emilio in Rome, and other AP staffers around the world contributed.