Russia claimed to have captured Mariupol on Friday in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, after a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of the strategic port city to a smoking ruin, with over 20,000 civilians feared dead.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol — the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance — and the city as a whole, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the ministry as saying a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at the steelworks had surrendered since Monday, including over 500 on Friday.
As they surrendered, the troops were taken prisoner by the Russians, and at least some were taken to a former penal colony. Others were said to be hospitalized.
The defense of the steel mill had been led by Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, whose far-right origins have been seized on by the Kremlin as part of an effort to cast its invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russia said the Azov commander was taken away from the plant in an armored vehicle.
Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the steel mill’s defenders for war crimes and put them on trial, branding them “Nazis” and criminals. That has stirred international fears about their fate.
The steelworks, which sprawled across 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), had been the site of fierce fighting for weeks.
The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, before their government ordered them to abandon the plant’s defense and save themselves.
The complete takeover of Mariupol gives Putin a badly needed victory in the war he began on Feb. 24 — a conflict that was supposed to have been a lightning conquest for the Kremlin but instead has seen the failure to take the capital of Kyiv, a pullback of forces to refocus on eastern Ukraine, and the sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Military analysts said Mariupol’s capture at this point is of mostly symbolic importance, since the city was already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the fighting there had already left.
In other developments Friday, the West moved to pour billions more in aid into Ukraine and fighting raged in the Donbas, the industrial heartland in eastern Ukraine that Putin is bent on capturing.
Russian forces shelled a vital highway and kept up attacks on a key city in the Luhansk region, hitting a school among other sites, Ukrainian authorities said. Luhansk is part of the Donbas.
The Kremlin had sought control of Mariupol to complete a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to join the larger battle for the Donbas. The city’s loss also deprives Ukraine of a vital seaport.
Mariupol endured some of the worst suffering of the war and became a worldwide symbol of defiance. An estimated 100,000 people remained out a prewar population of 450,000, many trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows upon rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.
A maternity hospital was hit with a lethal Russian airstrike on March 9, producing searing images of pregnant women being evacuated from the place. A week later, about 300 people were reported killed in a bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter, although the real death toll could be closer to 600.
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.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday the evacuation of his forces from the miles of tunnels and bunkers beneath Azovstal was done to save the lives of the fighters.
Russia cuts off gas exports to Finland
Russia halted gas exports to neighbouring Finland on Saturday, a highly symbolic move that came just days after the Nordic country announced it wanted to join NATO and marked a likely end to Finland’s nearly 50 years of importing natural gas from Russia.
The measure taken by the Russian energy giant Gazprom was in line with an earlier announcement following Helsinki’s refusal to pay for the gas in rubles as Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded European countries do since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
The Finnish state-owned gas company Gasum said that “natural gas supplies to Finland under Gasum’s supply contract have been cut off” by Russia on Saturday morning at 7 am local time (0400 GMT).
The announcement follows Moscow’s decision to cut off electricity exports to Finland earlier this month and an earlier decision by the Finnish state-controlled oil company Neste to replace imports of Russian crude oil with crude oil from elsewhere.
After decades of energy cooperation that was seen beneficial for both Helsinki — particularly in the case of inexpensive Russian crude oil — and Moscow, Finland’s energy ties with Russia are now all but gone.
Such a break was easier for Finland than it will be for other European Union nations. Natural gas accounts for just some five per cent of total energy consumption in Finland, a country of 5.5 million.
Almost all of that gas comes from Russia, and is used mainly by industrial and other companies with only an estimated 4,000 households relying on gas heating.
Gasum said it would now supply natural gas to its customers from other sources through the undersea Baltic-connector gas pipeline running between Finland and Estonia and connecting the Finnish and Baltic gas grids.
Matti Vanhanen, the former Finnish prime minister and current speaker of Parliament, said the effect of Moscow’s decision to cut off gas after nearly 50 years since the first deliveries from the Soviet Union began is above all symbolic.
In an interview on Saturday with the Finnish public broadcaster YLE, Vanhanen said the decision marks an end of “a hugely important period between Finland, the Soviet Union and Russia, not only in energy terms but symbolically”.
“That pipeline is unlikely to ever open again,” Vanhanen told YLE, referring to the two parallel Russia-Finland natural gas pipelines that were launched in 1974.
The first connections from Finland’s power grid to the Soviet transmission system were also constructed in the 1970s, allowing electricity imports to Finland in case additional capacity was needed.
Vanhanen didn’t see Moscow’s gas stoppage as a retaliatory step from Russia to Finland’s bid to join NATO but rather a countermove to Western sanctions imposed on Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia did the same thing with Finland it has done earlier with some other countries to maintain its own credibility,” Vanhanen said, referring to the Kremlin’s demands to buy its gas in rubles.
Finland shares a 1,340-kilometre border with Russia, the longest of any of the EU’s 27 members, and has a conflict-ridden history with its huge eastern neighbour.
After losing two wars to Soviet Union, in World War II, Finland opted for neutrality with stable and pragmatic political and economic ties with Moscow.
Large-scale energy cooperation, also including nuclear power, between the two countries was one of the most visible signs of friendly bilateral ties between former enemies.