President Vladimir Putin appears to be pursuing a thus far-and no further strategy in the strategic Ukrainian town of Mariupol. Markedly, he has ordered his forces not to storm the steel plant where Ukrainian troops are holding out. He has instead ordered a complete blockade. In the reckoning of the Russian President, a “direct assault” is impractical. He has, however, claimed victory in the besieged city though Russian forces have not been able to subdue the remaining Ukrainians, who have given no indication that they are ready to sur- render. Clearly, President Putin is intent on asserting control of a strategic city that Russia has failed to fully capture despite two months of bombardment that have killed tens of thousands of civilians. Mariupol’s mayor called for a cease-fire on Thursday to allow trapped civilians to flee.
It is not clear whether evacuation corridors would be applicable to the civilians believed to have taken shelter in bunkers along with Ukrainian soldiers. Mr Putin has directed his troops to ensure that “not even a fly” could pass through the blockade of the site. Ukraine’s President Zelenskky has urged the country’s international allies to send what he calls “serious and heavy” arms. Russia expanded its assault across Ukraine as its forces made minor territorial gains along the 30-mile front. On Wednesday, Mr Putin took the provocative step of test-launching a new intercontinental ballistic missile, with the warning that western countries should “think twice” before “they try to threaten our country”. The test has heightened concerns in the Biden administration that the Russian leader is ever so isolated as he redoubles his offensive to gain full control of the eastern Ukraine region, known as the Don- bas. Ukraine has lampooned Mr Putin’s attempt to avoid a final clash with its forces in the city as an acknowledgement that he lacked the wherewithal to defeat them. In a televised meeting at the Kremlin, Mr Putin told defence minister Sergei Shoigu: “You successfully completed the combat effort to liberate Mariupol. I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary. I order you to cancel it. There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities. Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly can get through.”
Mr Putin’s directive to his soldiers falls short of the unambiguous victory that Moscow has sought after months of brutal combat in a city reduced to rubble. “They cannot take the Azovstal steel plant. They have understood this and have taken huge loss- es there,” said the Ukrainian presidential adviser, Oleksyi Arestovych. Russian officials say that the capture of Donbas is now the war’s principal objective. This week Moscow’s forces opened a new phase of the war. Detaching the region from the rest of Ukraine would give Mr Putin a badly needed victory two months into the war.