Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol “liberated,” after nearly two months of fighting, even though Russian forces have not been able to penetrate the city’s massive Azovstal steel plant that remains in the hands of Ukrainian fighters and civilians.
Rather than storming the plant, Putin has instead ordered a blockade of the facility, sealing it off “so that not even a fly comes through,” a tactic observers believe will save Russian soldiers’ lives and possibly starve out those inside the plant.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials say evidence of mass graves outside Mariupol has emerged. Photographs from Maxar Technologies, a U.S. satellite imagery company, appear to show images of at least 200 new graves in the town of Manhush.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the World Bank Thursday that his country needs as much as $7 billion a month in support and will need hundreds of billions to recover from Russia’s invasion.
U.S. President Joe Biden authorized another $800 million in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine on Thursday, declaring it was necessary to help Kyiv’s forces repel Russian fighters in the critical battles unfolding in the eastern region of the country.
“This package includes heavy artillery weapons, dozens of howitzers and 144,000 rounds of ammunition,” Biden said in a short White House speech. He said the new arms shipment was particularly aimed at helping Ukraine’s forces fight in the Donbas region, which is flatter, more open terrain than where earlier fighting had occurred to the west.
Biden said the new assistance, on top of another $800 million package announced last week, “almost” exhausts congressional authorization for U.S. military aid to Ukraine. But the president said he would soon ask Congress for even more money for Ukraine’s forces.
Biden said the United States and its Western allies remain united in their resolve to assist Ukraine in fighting back against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eight-week invasion.
“The most important thing is holding the world together” against Russia, Biden said. “So far, so good.”
Biden vowed that Putin “will never succeed in occupying all of Ukraine. Putin has failed to achieve his grand ambitions on the battlefield. Kyiv still stands,” the president said.
New refugee aid
In other war-related actions, Biden said he was sending $500 million to Ukraine in new economic aid, streamlining a humanitarian refugee effort to allow Ukrainians escaping the ravages of war in their homeland to move more quickly to the United States if they want and banning all Russian ships from docking at U.S. ports.
Earlier Thursday, Putin ordered his forces not to storm a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol where the last remaining Ukrainian forces have been holed up in the port on the north coast of the Sea of Azov.
In a televised meeting, Putin told Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that Russian forces should blockade the plant “so that a fly cannot not pass through,” and that going forward with a plan to storm the site would unnecessarily risk Russian troops.
Shoigu told Putin that there were 2,000 Ukrainian troops at the Azovstal plant, but that the rest of Mariupol, a key port city, had been “liberated.”
Biden claimed, “There is no evidence Mariupol has fallen,” but weeks of Russian bombing has all but flattened much of the city.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk demanded Russia allow for the evacuation of civilians and wounded soldiers from the plant through a humanitarian corridor.
“There are about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers there. They all need to be pulled out of Azovstal today,” Vereshchuk said in an online post Thursday.
Vereshchuk also said four buses were able to evacuate civilians from Mariupol on Wednesday.
More than 100,000 Ukrainians are believed to be trapped in Mariupol, where 400,000 people lived before Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24.
“The conditions there are truly horrific,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday at a diplomatic conference in Panama. He underscored that attempted humanitarian corridors to allow Mariupol residents to escape “have fallen apart very quickly.”
The fight over Mariupol is part of a broader Russian offensive in the strategically important Donbas region, where Moscow has been boosting its military presence.
“Moscow’s current objective is to broaden its control in the east and south. Ideally, they would like to grab Kharkiv and Odesa,” John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told VOA. “But those are tall orders. They may have to settle for Mariupol.”
On March 25, following losses in northern Ukraine, Moscow announced a major shift in strategy and removed forces from the north, including the suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, to consolidate military gains in the Donbas and establish a land bridge to the Crimea Peninsula, which it seized in 2014.
Analysts say if Russian forces gain complete control of the Donbas, their diplomats will hold a stronger hand in peace negotiations and be in a better position to demand autonomy for the region.
“But even if (Putin) makes large gains in the east and south and accepts a settlement that gives him control of his new conquests, that does not mean that he will be satisfied,” Herbst said.
U.S. Defense Department analysts say the battle for the Donbas region, where fighting has been ongoing since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, could last for months more.
The United States slapped new sanctions Wednesday on dozens more individuals and entities accused of evading ongoing financial penalties imposed on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.
“The Department of Treasury sanctions Transkapitalbank — a key Russian commercial bank that has offered services to banks globally to evade international sanctions, and more than 40 individuals and entities that are part of a Russian sanctions-evasion network led by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Psaki said Washington also has imposed sanctions on companies in Russia’s virtual currency mining industry and applied visa restrictions on more than 600 individuals in response to human rights abuses by Russia and Belarus.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.