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 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 AP reports.
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 region. 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. 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 in the city, much of which has been reduced to a smoking ruin in a nearly two-month siege, with more than 20,000 people feared dead. On Tuesday, soldiers holed up at the steel plant pleaded for international help evacuating troops and civilians, saying "We fight to the last, but we have very little time left." Paul Adams at the BBC says Putin's apparent change of plan may be an effort to speed up the wider Donbas offensive. Or, since the site is one of Europe's biggest steelworks, "Moscow may be hoping that there’s something of value to salvage" even after weeks of destruction. (Read more Russia-Ukraine war stories.)