Russian President Putin visits occupied city of Mariupol
Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, Russian state news agencies reported on Sunday morning, in his first trip to the Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September. Mariupol became a worldwide symbol of defiance after outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian forces held out in a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May. Earlier, on Saturday, Putin traveled to Crimea, a short distance southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine. The visits came days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader accusing him of war crimes. Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then drove himself around the city’s “memorial sites,” concert hall and coastline, the Russian reports said, without specifying exactly when the visit took place. They said Putin also met with local residents in the city’s Nevskyi district. Speaking to the state RIA agency Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin made clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its blasted downtown by the end of the year. “People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is under way, people started actively returning,” Khusnulin told RIA. When Moscow fully captured the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained out of a prewar population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows upon rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings. Read more: Impact of Russia-Ukraine War on Asia’s climate goals Mariupol’s plight first came into focus with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9 last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops moved into Ukraine. A week later, about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater that was serving as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by the AP last spring suggested that the real death toll could be closer to 600. A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in eastern Mariupol before surrendering, their dogged defense tying down Russian forces and coming to symbolize Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow’s aggression. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world denounced as illegal, and moved on last September to officially claim four regions in Ukraine’s south and east as Russian territory, following referendums that Kyiv and the West described as a sham.
Russia scrubs Mariupol's Ukraine identity, builds on death
Throughout Mariupol, Russian workers are tearing down bombed-out buildings at a rate of at least one a day, hauling away shattered bodies with the debris. Russian military convoys are rumbling down the broad avenues of what is swiftly becoming a garrison city, and Russian soldiers, builders, administrators and doctors are replacing the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have died or left. Many of the city’s Ukrainian street names are reverting to Soviet ones, with the Avenue of Peace that cuts through Mariupol to be labeled Lenin Avenue. Even the large sign that announces the name of the city at its entrance has been Russified, repainted with the red, white and blue of the Russian flag and the Russian spelling. Eight months after Mariupol fell into Russian hands, Russia is eradicating all vestiges of Ukraine from it – along with the evidence of war crimes buried in its buildings, such as the famed Drama Theater where demolition started Thursday. The few open schools teach a Russian curriculum, phone and television networks are Russian, the Ukrainian currency is dying out, and Mariupol is now in the Moscow time zone. On the ruins of the old Mariupol, a new Russian city is rising, with materials from at least one European company, The Associated Press found. But the AP investigation into life in occupied Mariupol also underlines what its residents already know all too well: No matter what the Russians do, they are building upon a city of death. More than 10,000 new graves now scar Mariupol, the AP found, and the death toll might run three times higher than an early estimate of at least 25,000. The former Ukrainian city has also hollowed out, with Russian plans to demolish well over 50,000 homes, the AP calculated. Associated Press journalists were the last international media in Mariupol to escape heavy shelling in March, before Russian forces took the city over. This is the story of what has happened since. AP reconnected with many people whose tragedies were captured in photos and video during the deadliest days of the Russian siege. Death surrounds Mariupol in the rapidly growing cemeteries on its outskirts, and its stench lingered over the city into the autumn. It haunts the memories of survivors, both in Mariupol and in exile. Every one of the dozens of residents the AP spoke with knew someone killed during the siege of Mariupol, which began with the Feb. 24 invasion. As many as 30 people arrive at the morgue each day in hopes of tracking down a loved one. Lydya Erashova watched her 5-year-old son Artem and her 7-year-old niece Angelina die after a Russian shelling in March. The family hastily buried the young cousins in a makeshift grave in a yard and fled Mariupol. They returned in July to rebury the children, only to learn while on the road that the bodies had already been dug up and taken to a warehouse. As they approached the city center, each block was bleaker than the last. “It is horror. Wherever you look, whichever way you look,” said Erashova. “Everything is black, is destroyed.” Neither she nor her sister-in-law could bear to go inside the warehouse to identify the bodies of their children. Their husbands, who are brothers, chose the tiny coffins – one pink and one blue – to be placed together in a single grave. Erashova, who is now in Canada, said no Russian rebuilding plan could possibly bring back what Mariupol lost. “Our lives have been taken from us. Our child was taken from us,” she said. “It’s so ridiculous and stupid. How do you restore a dead city where people were killed at every turn?” Read more: Russia warns increasing supply of US arms to Ukraine will aggravate war RECKONING WITH DEATH The AP investigation drew on interviews with 30 residents from Mariupol, including 13 living under Russian occupation; satellite imagery; hundreds of videos gathered from inside the city, and Russian documents showing a master plan. Taken together, they chronicle a comprehensive effort to suppress Mariupol’s collective history and memory as a Ukrainian city. Mariupol was in the crosshairs of the Kremlin from the first day of the invasion. Just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border, the city is a port on the Sea of Azov and crucial for Russian supply lines. The city was hit relentlessly with airstrikes and artillery, its communications severed, its food and water cut off. Yet Mariupol refused to give in for 86 days. By the time the last Ukrainian fighters holed up in the Azovstal steel mill surrendered in May, Mariupol had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. That resistance came at a high price. The thoroughness of Russia’s destruction of Mariupol can still be seen today. Videos taken across the city and satellite images show that munitions have left their mark on nearly every building across its 166 square kilometers (64 square miles). Large swaths of the city are devoid of color and life, with fire-blackened walls, grey demolition dust and dead trees with shredded foliage. But the worst destruction Mariupol suffered may be measured in its death toll, which will never be fully known. An AP analysis of satellite imagery taken over the past eight months of occupation shows 8,500 new graves in the outlying Staryi Krym cemetery alone, with possibly multiple bodies beneath each mound. There are at least three other trench gravesites around the city, including one created by Ukrainians themselves at the beginning of the siege. In all, a total at least 10,300 new graves are scattered around Mariupol, according to AP’s methodology, confirmed by three forensic pathologists with expertise in mass graves. Thousands more bodies likely never even made it to the graveyard. Back in May, when the city finally fell, the municipal government in exile estimated 25,000 people at a minimum had died. But at least three people in the city since June say the number killed is triple that or more, based on conversations with workers documenting body collection from the streets for the Russian occupation authorities. Svitlana Chebotareva, a Mariupol resident who fled in March, said her neighbor died in a flat nearby, and the body is still there. Chebotareva returned home this autumn for just long enough to retrieve her belongings, since residents are free to come and go so long as they pass checkpoints. She said the Russians expect gratitude with their offer of a few new apartments. “I don’t know how it’s possible now to give us ‘candies’ in exchange for destroyed homes and killed people,” she said in Kyiv. “As if there’s something to believe in.” ERASING A UKRAINIAN CITYThe notices are taped to peeling, pockmarked walls by the entry, and addressed to “DEAR RESIDENTS.” This is how those who remained in Mariupol learn their buildings are scheduled for imminent demolition. Often, despite shattered windows, frozen pipes and no electricity, they are still living inside because they have nowhere else to go. In a review of hundreds of photos and video clips along with documents from occupation authorities, the AP found that more than 300 buildings in Mariupol have been or are about to be demolished. Some are individual homes, but most are multistory apartment blocks in the khrushchyovka style, launched by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a housing crisis in the 1960s. With around 180 apartments inside or more, each building was designed to house as many families as possible. That means in all, the demolitions will remove well over 50,000 homes, according to AP calculations. “There is no discussion, people aren’t prepared,” said an activist in Mariupol, who like all inside Mariupol requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “People still live in the basements. Where they can go is unclear.” Only Russians handle the debris itself, according to another resident still in the city who works on the sites. The stated reason is to avoid accidents, he said. But Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s mayor who is exiled in Dnipro, believes the real reason is to ensure that people don’t see the rotting corpses being hauled away. He said many of the buildings, especially in the neighborhood around Azovstal , contain 50 to 100 bodies each that will never get a decent burial. Those deaths will go unrecorded. 110 Mytropolytska is one of the buildings on Russia’s demolition list, scheduled to come down any day. The smell of fresh-baked bread still brings Inna Nepomnyshaya, a doctor, back to her last night in March in her sixth-floor apartment there. When she saw the street price of bread in her besieged city, she decided to bake her own. The smell warmed the air the next morning when her son-in-law arrived. It was time to leave, he insisted. Russian forces were closing in. Nepomnyshaya was at her daughter’s building when Russian tanks rolled up to her own at dusk on March 11. As AP journalists watched and recorded from the upper floor of nearby Hospital No. 2, one tank raised its gun at 110 Mytropolytska and fired. The shell shattered the walls of Nepomnyshaya’s apartment and obliterated those of the neighbors above, below and behind her. Most of the neighbors were huddled in the basement, but two elderly women, Lydya and Nataliya, couldn’t make the trip up and down the stairs. Their bodies would be buried in the courtyard soon after. Weeks later, AP video showed the rough graves still there. With communications to the city cut, Nepomnyshaya did not learn of the fate of her apartment until her family had escaped to Ukrainian-held territory. Like many who left Mariupol, she still speaks of the city in the present tense. “I live in Mariupol, this is my home,” she said, speaking by candlelight in a café in Dnipro, another city that had lost power. “This house was my fortress, and they took it away from me.” Also on the demolition list are the buildings on either side. One was hit by at least one airstrike on March 11; the walls of another are in ruins. Russia is now moving into the historic city center. Russian authorities in October dismantled Mariupol’s memorial to victims of the Holodomor, the Soviet-engineered famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians, according to video posted on Russian television. They also painted over two murals commemorating victims of Russia’s 2014 attack on Ukraine, images obtained by the AP show. “They spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on things like erasing demonstrations of Ukrainian identity and very little time tending to the needs of the Mariupol people,” said Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which for years monitored eastern Ukraine. “It’s really a very brutal inhuman colonial experiment unfolding before our eyes.” Read more: Russian military to reach 1.5M; Putin vows to win in Ukraine BUILDING A RUSSIAN CITY As it tries to raze the remains of Ukraine, Russia has laid out a plan for a new city with a new population. At its heart will lie the historic Mariupol theater, according to the master plan first reported by the Russian site The Village in August and seen by The Associated Press. The majestic Drama Theater became the city’s main bomb shelter until twin Russian airstrikes hit on March 16. Hundreds died, an AP investigation found, and residents said the site reeked of bodies all summer. To mask the ruins, Russian authorities put up a screen so tall it can be seen from space, etching the theater’s outline on the paneling in a ghostly reminder of its previous life. On Thursday, the theater itself fell victim to the demolition campaign, according to video from the city seen by The Associated Press. Also in the Russian documents are plans to restore the ruins of the obliterated Azovstal steel mill, the last Ukrainian holdout. The site is slated to be transformed into an industrial park by the end of next year, though there are no signs that any work has begun. But a Russian military compound went up in record time, according to satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies that showed the vast U-shaped building with the Russian Army slogan emblazoned on the rooftop. Russia already has constructed at least 14 new apartment buildings — a small fraction of the number coming down — and is repairing at least two of the hospitals it damaged by shelling. Video obtained by The Associated Press showed rows of pallets stacked with insulation from the Danish company Rockwool, which maintains its division in Russia despite criticism. Construction materials are not subject to sanctions. In a statement, Rockwool’s Vice President of Communications Michael Zarin said the insulation panels were distributed without the company’s “knowledge or consent,” and that he hopes its products help restore health care, warmth and shelter to Ukrainians. Videos show no furniture visible in the windows of the new apartments and few people on the sidewalks outside. Only pensioners, the disabled and those affiliated with the occupation seem to be getting them, according to multiple people still in Mariupol. One man applied to the list in September and found himself in 11,700th place. He has friends in the 2,000 range who are still waiting, like him. And an old man he knows, whose number was in the 9,000s has already moved into one of the new buildings. “I don’t know how it happens. I won’t speculate,” he said. However, the man said he has no issue with the demolition of buildings that aren’t fit to live in. He is cautiously relaunching his own company in the new city. But the plans for a Russian Mariupol depend on a population that simply no longer exists. Thousands of Mariupol’s former residents were sent to Russia with little or no choice, and thousands more fled into other areas of Ukraine. Of Mariupol’s former population of around 425,000, just over a quarter stayed, according to estimates from Andryushchenko. The Russian master plan for Mariupol calls for a population of 212,000 in 2022, and back to 425,000 by 2030. Right now, about 15,000 of the people in Mariupol people are Russian troops, said Andryushchenko, who drew his estimate from information about the soldiers taking over homes and public buildings. He said Russian riot police have begun patrolling the city to head off protests over the lack of heat, electricity and water. Videos seen by the AP showed military convoys, along with construction trucks, clogging the streets. The activist the AP spoke with also confirmed an increase in the number of soldiers since Russian forces retreated from the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. Construction workers from Russia show no signs of leaving, and tents were visible outside the Port City mall until the winter. Doctors and city administrators also have come in from Russia, according to Russian government announcements and physicians who left the city after refusing to work for the occupation authorities. “There is no more Russian city now than Mariupol,” Dmitry Sablin, a Russian lawmaker born in Mariupol, said in an interview with Russian media in June after visiting the city. The Kremlin is moving as swiftly as it can to ensure that those Ukrainians who stay see their future as Russians. On Nov. 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Mariupol the title of “City of Military Glory” for the heroism of people he described as its defenders. On Dec. 7, Putin said his war against Ukraine had turned the Sea of Azov into “Russia’s internal sea.” This suits many of those who remained behind just fine. Mariupol has always had some residents who considered themselves Russian. “Whoever doesn’t like it, doesn’t come back,” one woman said. Read more: Wartime Ukraine erasing Russian past from public spaces NO FUTURE IN SIGHT Russia’s occupation of Mariupol has divided families and friends into two categories: Those who stayed and those who fled. Both grapple with what Mariupol once was and will be. When Ivan Kalinin escaped, he left behind the body of his wife Iryna and their unborn first child, both killed in the March 9 Russian airstrike on the maternity hospital. His parents and hers stayed in Mariupol. He last saw his wife that morning when her labor began, and she sent him to fetch clothes and diapers. He learned about the airstrike at a military blockade on the way to the hospital. He and his father found her body the next day at another hospital. “I do not even know how I survived it,” he said quietly. “I was drinking every day to fall asleep.” Kalinin, who now lives in Wales, cannot imagine going home. Nor can he imagine life anywhere else. “It is too painful for me to be there. I might return at some point — it is my hometown, after all,” he said. “I fall asleep every day hoping this is a dream. And I wake up with understanding that it is a reality.” Mariupol is now torn between Russia and Ukraine. Some people who stayed are waiting for Russian citizenship just to get on with their lives. Yet the Ukrainian letter ï , which is not found in Russian, is appearing as graffiti around the city — a small act of defiance in a place many described as full of fear. Nepomnyshaya, whose apartment was struck by a Russian shell, dreamed recently that she’d returned home and smelled bread. But she is not sure if she ever can or will go back. “I believe that Mariupol will be rebuilt, that it will be Ukraine after all,” she said. “But I know that this smell is just a memory.”
Russia frees captive medic who filmed Mariupol’s horror
A celebrated Ukrainian medic whose footage was smuggled out of the besieged city of Mariupol by an Associated Press team was freed by Russian forces on Friday, three months after she was taken captive on the streets of the city. Yuliia Paievska is known in Ukraine as Taira, a nickname she chose in the World of Warcraft video game. Using a body camera, she recorded 256 gigabytes of her team’s efforts over two weeks to save the wounded, including both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. She transferred the clips to an Associated Press team, the last international journalists in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, one of whom fled with it embedded in a tampon on March 15. Taira and a colleague were taken prisoner by Russian forces on March 16, the same day a Russian airstrike hit a theater in the city center, killing around 600 people, according to an Associated Press investigation. Also Read: Moscow-backed officials try to solidify rule in Ukraine “It was such a great sense of relief. Those sound like such ordinary words, and I don’t even know what to say,” her husband, Vadim Puzanov, told The Associated Press late Friday, breathing deeply to contain his emotion. Puzanov said he spoke by phone with Taira, who was en route to a Kyiv hospital, and feared for her health. Initially the family had kept quiet, hoping negotiations would take their course. But The Associated Press spoke with him before releasing the smuggled videos, which ultimately had millions of viewers around the world, including on some of the biggest networks in Europe and the United States. Puzanov expressed gratitude for the coverage, which showed Taira was trying to save Russian soldiers as well as Ukrainian civilians. Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy announced Taira’s release in a national address. “I’m grateful to everyone who worked for this result. Taira is already home. We will keep working to free everyone,” he said. Hundreds of prominent Ukrainians have been kidnapped or captured, including local officials, journalists, activists and human rights defenders. Russia portrayed Taira as working for the nationalist Azov Battalion, in line with Moscow’s narrative that it is attempting to “denazify” Ukraine. But the AP found no such evidence, and friends and colleagues said she had no links to Azov, which made a last stand in a Mariupol steel plant before hundreds of its fighters were captured or killed. The footage itself is a visceral testament to her efforts to save the wounded on both sides. A clip recorded on March 10 shows two Russian soldiers taken roughly out of an ambulance by a Ukrainian soldier. One is in a wheelchair. The other is on his knees, hands bound behind his back, with an obvious leg injury. Their eyes are covered by winter hats, and they wear white armbands. A Ukrainian soldier curses at one of them. “Calm down, calm down,” Taira tells him. A woman asks her, “Are you going to treat the Russians?” “They will not be as kind to us,” she replies. “But I couldn’t do otherwise. They are prisoners of war.” Taira was a member of the Ukraine Invictus Games for military veterans, where she was set to compete in archery and swimming. Invictus said she was a military medic from 2018 to 2020 but had since been demobilized. She received the body camera in 2021 to film for a Netflix documentary series on inspirational figures being produced by Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games. But when Russian forces invaded, she used it to shoot scenes of injured civilians and soldiers instead.
More bodies found in Mariupol as global food crisis looms
Workers pulled scores of bodies from smashed buildings in an “endless caravan of death” inside the devastated city of Mariupol, authorities said Wednesday, while fears of a global food crisis escalated over Ukraine’s inability to export millions of tons of grain through its blockaded ports. At the same time, Ukrainian and Russian forces battled fiercely for control of Sievierodonestk, a city that has emerged as central to Moscow’s grinding campaign to capture Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas. As the fighting dragged on, the human cost of the war continued to mount. In many of Mariupol’s buildings, workers are finding 50 to 100 bodies each, according to a mayoral aide in the Russian-held port city in the south. Petro Andryushchenko said on the Telegram app that the bodies are being taken in an “endless caravan of death” to a morgue, landfills and other places. At least 21,000 Mariupol civilians were killed during the weeks-long Russian siege, Ukrainian authorities have estimated. The consequences of the war are being felt far beyond Eastern Europe because shipments of Ukrainian grain are bottled up inside the country, driving up the price of food. Ukraine, long known as the “bread basket of Europe,” is one of the world’s biggest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but much of that flow has been halted by the war and a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. An estimated 22 million tons of grain remains in Ukraine. The failure to ship it out is endangering the food supply in many developing countries, especially in Africa. Russia expressed support Wednesday for a U.N. plan to create a safe corridor at sea that would allow Ukraine to resume grain shipments. The plan, among other things, calls for Ukraine to remove mines from the waters near the Black Sea port of Odesa. But Russia is insisting that it be allowed to check incoming vessels for weapons. And Ukraine has expressed fear that clearing the mines could enable Russia to attack the coast. Ukrainian officials said the Kremlin’s assurances that it wouldn’t do that cannot be trusted. Read: Ukraine recovers bodies from steel-plant siege European Council President Charles Michel on Wednesday accused the Kremlin of “weaponizing food supplies and surrounding their actions with a web of lies, Soviet-style.” While Russia, which is also a major supplier of grain to the rest of the world, has blamed the looming food crisis on Western sanctions against Moscow, the European Union heatedly denied that and said the blame rests with Russia itself for waging war against Ukraine. “These are Russian ships and Russian missiles that are blocking the export of crops and grain,” Michel said. “Russian tanks, bombs and mines are preventing Ukraine from planting and harvesting.” The West has exempted grain and other food from its sanctions against Russia, but the U.S. and the EU have imposed sweeping punitive measures against Russian ships. Moscow argues that those restrictions make it impossible to use its ships to export grain, and also make other shipping companies reluctant to carry its product. Turkey has sought to play a role in negotiating an end to the war and in brokering the resumption of grain shipments. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Ukraine was not invited to the talks. Read: Russia hits Kyiv with missiles; Putin warns West on arms Meanwhile, Moscow’s troops continued their painstaking, inch-by-inch campaign for the Donbas region with heavy fighting in and around Sievierodonetsk, which had a prewar population of 100,000. It is one of the last cities yet to be taken by the Russians in Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbas. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Sievierodonetsk the “epicenter” of the battle for the Donbas and perhaps one of the most difficult battles of the war. He said the Ukrainian army is defending its positions and inflicting real losses on the Russian forces. “In many ways, it is there that the fate of our Donbas is being decided,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address, which was recorded in the street outside his office in Kyiv. An adviser to Zelenskyy’s office said Russian forces have changed their tactics in the battle, retreating from the city while pounding it with artillery and airstrikes. As a result, Oleksiy Arestovych said, the city center is deserted, and the artillery hits an empty place. “They are hitting hard without any particular success,” he said in his daily online interview. Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai acknowledged the difficulties of battling Russian forces, saying, “Maybe we will have to retreat, but right now battles are ongoing in the city.” “Everything the Russian army has — artillery, mortars, tanks, aviation — all of that, they’re using in Sievierodonetsk in order to wipe the city off the face of the Earth and capture it completely,” he said. The city of Lysychansk, like Sievierodonetsk, is also wedged between Russian forces in Luhansk province. Valentyna Tsonkan, an elderly resident of Lysychansk, described the moment when her house came under attack. “I was lying on my bed. The shrapnel hit the wall and went through my shoulder,” she said as she received treatment for her wounds. Russia’s continuing encroachment could open up the possibility of a negotiated settlement between the two nations more than three months into the war, analysts said. Russian President Vladimir Putin “has the option of declaring his objectives met at more or less any time in order to consolidate Russia’s territorial gains,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert at the London think tank Chatham House. At that point, Giles said, Western leaders may “pressure Ukraine to accept their losses in order to bring an end to the fighting.” Zelenskyy said Russia is unwilling to negotiate because it still feels strong. Speaking by video link to U.S. corporate leaders, he called for even tougher sanctions to weaken Russia economically, including getting it “off the global financial system completely.” Zelenskyy said Ukraine is willing to negotiate “to find a way out.” But a settlement cannot come “at the expense of our independence.” Meanwhile, to the north, Russian shelling of the Kharkiv region killed five people and wounded 12 over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian authorities said. The Russian military said it used high-precision missiles to hit an armor repair plant near Kharkiv. There was no confirmation from Ukraine of such a plant being hit.
Separatists to nationalize ships in Mariupol
The leader of Russia-backed separatists who control part of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region says his administration will nationalize some of the ships in the port of Mariupol. Denis Pushilin was quoted by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on Tuesday as saying that “some of the vessels will come under the jurisdiction of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The relevant decisions have been made.” It wasn’t immediately clear whether he was referring to Ukrainian vessels or ships from other countries. Also read:EU leaders agree to ban 90% of Russian oil by year-end Kyiv has accused Russia of blocking its sea ports and hindering grain exports, fueling a global food crisis. Moscow has sought to pin the blame on the West and the sanctions it imposed on Russia. Russian forces encircled Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Azov Sea, early in the war. They took full control of it this month after capturing nearly 2,500 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up in the sprawling Azovstal steel mill, the last remaining pocket of Ukrainian resistance.
200 bodies found in Mariupol basement as war rages in east
Workers digging through the rubble of an apartment building in Mariupol found 200 bodies in the basement, Ukrainian authorities said Tuesday, a grim reminder of the horrors still coming to light in the ruined city that has seen some of the worst suffering of the 3-month-old war. The bodies were decomposing and a stench permeated the neighborhood, said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor. It’s not clear when they were discovered. Perched on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol was relentlessly pounded during a monthslong siege that finally ended last week after some 2,500 Ukrainian fighters abandoned a steel plant where they had made their last stand. Russian forces already held the rest of the city, where an estimated 100,000 people remain out a prewar population of 450,000, many trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Ukrainian authorities have said at least 21,000 people have been killed — and accused Russia of trying to cover up the extent of the horrors by bringing in mobile cremation equipment. They have also alleged some of the dead were buried in mass graves. Strikes have also hit a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians were sheltering. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the Russians of waging “total war,” seeking to inflict as much death and destruction as possible on his country. “Indeed, there has not been such a war on the European continent for 77 years,” Zelensky told Ukrainians Monday night, on the eve of the three-month anniversary of the start of the war. The conflict began with expectations that Russia might overtake the country in a blitz lasting only days or a few weeks. But stiff Ukrainian resistance, bolstered by Western weapons, has bogged down Moscow’s troops. The Kremlin is now focused on the eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas — where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for eight years and held swaths of territory. Also Read: Russian soldier sentenced to life at Kyiv war crimes trial That grinding conflict had already claimed 14,000 lives before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 — and even after shifting their focus there, Moscow’s troops have struggled to gain ground. Russian forces have intensified efforts to encircle and capture Sievierodonetsk and neighboring cities, the only part of the Donbas’ Luhansk region that remains under Ukrainian government control, British military authorities said Tuesday. Russian forces have achieved “some localized successes” despite strong Ukrainian resistance along dug-in positions, the U.K. Defense Ministry said, but the fall of Sievierodonetsk and the area around it may cause logistical problems for the Russians. “If the Donbas front line moves further west, this will extend Russian lines of communication and likely see its forces face further logistic resupply difficulties,” the ministry said. Two top Russian officials appeared to acknowledge Tuesday that Moscow’s advance had been slower than expected — though they promised the offensive would achieve its goals. Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev said in an interview that the Russian government “is not chasing deadlines.”
Russia claims to have taken full control of Mariupol
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. Also Read: Fall of Mariupol appears at hand; fighters leave steel plant 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. Also Read: Russian neighbor Finland announces it wants to join NATO 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. 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. As the end drew near at Azovstal, wives of fighters who held out at the steelworks told of what they feared would be their last contact with their husbands. Olga Boiko, wife of a marine, wiped away tears as she said that her husband had written 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.” Natalia Zaritskaya, wife of another fighter at Azovstal, said that based on the messages she had seen over the past two days, “Now they are on the path from hell to hell. Every inch of this path is deadly.” She said that two days ago, her husband reported that of the 32 soldiers with whom he had served, only eight survived, most of them seriously wounded. While Russia described the troops leaving the steel plant as a mass surrender, the Ukrainians called it a mission fulfilled. They said the fighters had tied down Moscow’s forces and hindered their bid to seize the east. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, described the defense of Mariupol as “the Thermopylae of the 21st century” — a reference to one of history’s most glorious defeats, in which 300 Spartans held off a much larger Persian force in 480 B.C. before finally succumbing.
Ukrainian troops surrendering at Mariupol registered as POWs
The fate of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who surrendered after holding out against punishing attacks on Mariupol’s steel factory hung in the balance Thursday, amid international fears that the Russians may take reprisals against the prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross gathered personal information from hundreds of the soldiers — name, date of birth, closest relative — and registered them as prisoners of war, as part of its role in ensuring the humane treatment of POWs under the Geneva Conventions. Also read:Battle for Mariupol draws toward close after surrender Amnesty International said in a tweet that the Ukrainian soldiers are now prisoners of war and as such “must not be subjected to any form of torture or ill-treatment.” More than 1,700 defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol have surrendered since Monday, Russian authorities said, in what appeared to be the final stage in the nearly three-month siege of the now-pulverized port city. At least some of the fighters were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. Others were hospitalized, according to a separatist official. But an undisclosed number remained in the warren of bunkers and tunnels in the sprawling plant. In a brief video message, the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, which led the defense of the steel mill, said he and other fighters were still inside. “An operation is underway, the details of which I will not announce,” Svyatoslav Palamar said. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was working to ensure “that the most influential international forces are informed and, as much as possible, involved in saving our troops.” While Ukraine expressed hope for a prisoner exchange, Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the Azovstal fighters for war crimes and put them on trial, branding them “Nazis” and criminals. The Azov Regiment’s far-right origins have been seized on by the Kremlin as part of an effort to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Meanwhile, in the first war crimes trial held by Ukraine, a captured Russian soldier testified that he shot an unarmed civilian in the head on an officer’s orders, and he asked the victim’s widow to forgive him. The soldier pleaded guilty earlier in the week, but prosecutors presented the evidence against him in line with Ukrainian law. In the Poltava region, two other Russian soldiers appeared in court Thursday on war-crimes charges that they shelled civilians. Prosecutors said both pleaded guilty. The next court session in their case was set for May 26. Also, more U.S. aid appeared to be on its way to Ukraine when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion package of military and economic aid for the country and its allies. The House voted for it last week. President Joe Biden’s quick signature was certain. “Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Taking the Azovstal steel plant would allow Russia to claim complete control of Mariupol and secure a long-sought victory. But it would be a mostly symbolic victory at this point, since the city is already effectively in Moscow’s hands and analysts say most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the battle there have already left. Kyiv’s troops, bolstered by Western weapons, thwarted Russia’s initial goal of storming the capital, Kyiv, and have put up stiff resistance against Moscow’s forces in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that President Vladimir Putin has set his sights on capturing. The surprising success of Ukraine’s troops has buoyed Kyiv’s confidence. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who was involved in several rounds of talks with Russia, said in a tweet addressed to Moscow: “Do not offer us a cease-fire — this is impossible without total Russian troops withdrawal.” “Until Russia is ready to fully liberate occupied territories, our negotiating team is weapons, sanctions and money,” he wrote. Russia, though, again signaled its intent to incorporate or at least maintain influence over areas its troops have seized. Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin this week visited the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, large parts of which have been under the control of Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in February. He was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the regions could become part of “our Russian family.” Also, Volodymyr Saldo, the Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region, appeared in a video on Telegram saying Kherson “will become a subject of the Russian Federation.” In other developments, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke by phone on Thursday with his Russian counterpart for the first time since the war began, and they agreed to keep the lines of communications open, the Pentagon said. On the battlefield, Ukraine’s military said Russian forces pressed their offensive in various sections of the front in the Donbas but were being repelled. The governor of the Luhansk region said Russian shelling killed four civilians, while separatist authorities in Donetsk said Ukrainian shelling killed two. Also read:Interrogation, uncertainty for surrendering Mariupol troops Zelenskyy said 12 people were killed and dozens more wounded in the city of Severodonetsk, and attacks on the northeastern Chernihiv region included a severe strike on the village of Desna, where many more died and rescuers were still going through the rubble. On the Russian side of the border, the governor of Kursk province said a truck driver was killed by shelling from Ukraine. At the war crimes trial in Kyiv, Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a Russian tank unit, told the court that he shot Oleksandr Shelipov, a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, in the head on orders from an officer. Shishimarin said he disobeyed a first order but felt he had no choice but to comply when it was repeated by another officer. He said he was told the man could pinpoint the troops’ location to Ukrainian forces. A prosecutor has disputed that Shishimarin was acting under orders, saying the direction didn’t come from a direct commander. Shishimarin apologized to the victim’s widow, Kateryna Shelipova, who described seeing her husband being shot just outside their home in the early days of Russia’s invasion. She told the court that she believes Shishimarin deserves a life sentence, the maximum possible, but that she wouldn’t mind if he were exchanged as part of a swap for the Azovstal defenders.
Battle for Mariupol draws toward close after surrender
The battle that turned Mariupol into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering drew toward a close as Russia said nearly 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who held out inside a pulverized steel plant had surrendered. Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to be put on trial by Ukraine on war-crimes charges pleaded guilty Wednesday to killing a civilian and could get life in prison. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality for fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop with Ukraine. The Ukrainian fighters who emerged from the ruined Azovstal steelworks after being ordered by their military to abandon the last stronghold of resistance in the now-flattened port city face an uncertain fate. Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. While Ukraine said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes. Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty's deputy director for the region, cited lawless executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said the Azovstal defenders “must not meet the same fate.” It was unclear how many fighters remained inside the plant’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to be holed up at one point. A separatist leader in the region said no top commanders had emerged from the steelworks. Also read:EU rushes out $300 billion roadmap to ditch Russian energy The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the biggest Ukrainian city to be taken by Moscow's forces, giving a boost to Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry. Military analysts, though, said the city's capture at this point would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow's control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have abandoned the stronghold since they started coming out Monday. Video showed the fighters carrying out their wounded on stretchers and undergoing pat-down searches before being taken away on buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign. The U.S. has gathered intelligence that shows some Russian officials have become concerned that Kremlin forces in Mariupol are carrying out abuses, including beating and electrocuting city officials and robbing homes, according to a U.S official familiar with the findings. The Russian officials are concerned that the abuses will further inspire residents to resist the occupation and that the treatment runs counter to Russia’s claims that its military has liberated Russian speakers, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment. Resistance fighting was reported in the occupied southern city of Melitopol, where the regional military administration said Ukrainians killed several high-ranking Russian officers and a Russian armored train carrying troops and ammunition overturned, causing the munitions to detonate. The administration said on Telegram that the Russian military does not maintain the tracks and overloads the trains, and “with help” from resistance fighters the train derailed. The reports could not be independently confirmed. In a sign of normalcy returning to Kyiv, the U.S. Embassy reopened on Wednesday, one month after Russian forces abandoned their bid to seize the capital and three months after the outpost was closed. A dozen embassy employees watched solemnly as the American flag was raised. Other Western countries have been reopening their embassies in Kyiv as well. In the war-crimes case in Kyiv, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through a car window in the opening days of the war. Ukraine's top prosecutor has said some 40 more war-crimes cases are being readied. On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden could become members of NATO in a matter of months, though objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threaten to disrupt things. Turkey accuses the two countries of harboring Kurdish militants and others it considers a threat to its security. Ibrahim Kalin, a foreign policy adviser and spokesman for Erdogan, said there will be “no progress” on the membership applications unless Turkey's concerns are met. Each of NATO’s 30 countries has an effective veto over new members. Also read:Interrogation, uncertainty for surrendering Mariupol troops Mariupol's defenders grimly clung to the steel mill for months and against the odds, preventing Russia from completing its occupation of the city and its port. Its full capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. It also would allow Russia to focus fully on the larger battle for the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial east. For Ukraine, the order to the fighters to surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government open to allegations it abandoned the troops he described as heroes. “Zelenskyy may face unpleasant questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think tank in Kyiv. “There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers.” A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through, he cautioned. Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians. Also, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment — among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison — as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the far right. The Russian parliament was scheduled to consider a resolution to ban the exchange of any Azov Regiment fighters but didn’t take up the issue Wednesday. Mariupol was a target of the Russians from the outset. The city — its prewar population of about 430,000 now reduced by about three-quarters — has largely been reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment, and Ukraine says over 20,000 civilians have been killed there. In other developments, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said Russia has begun using a prototype new laser weapon in Ukraine that is capable of hitting a target 5 kilometers (3 miles) away, state news agency Tass quoted him as saying on national television. He said it was tested Tuesday against a drone and incinerated it within five seconds. Borisov said a new generation of laser weapons will eventually allow Russia to conserve its expensive long-range missiles. Speaking late Wednesday in his nightly video address, Zelenskyy likened the Russian boast to Nazi Germany’s claims of Wunderwaffe, or wonder weapons, as the tide began to turn against it during World War II. A senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that the U.S. has seen nothing to corroborate the claims. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military assessment.
Ukraine reports more airstrikes on Azovstal
Ukraine's military says Russian forces are continuing airstrikes on the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol and pressing their advance on towns in eastern Ukraine. In its operational statement for Day 78 of the war, the Ukrainian military's General Staff says Russian forces have also fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian troops in the direction of Zaporizhzhia, which has been a refuge for civilians fleeing Mariupol. Also read:Ukraine to hold first war crimes trial of captured Russian It did not elaborate on the latest action around Azovstal. The military says Russian forces also fired artillery at Ukrainian units north of the city of Kharkiv in the northeast, and reported Russian strikes in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions to the north. Across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, site of sustained fighting since the war began, the Ukrainian military noted “partial success” in Russia’s advance. It said Ukrainian forces repulsed nine Russian attacks and destroyed several drones and military vehicles. The information could not be independently verified.