More than 260 Ukrainian troops, many of them wounded, have been removed from the besieged Azovstal steel mill, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the port city of Mariupol. Signalling Ukraine’s loss of the city to Russian forces, the evacuation marks the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war after 82 days of relentless fighting.
Late on Monday, Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Anna Malyar said 53 severely injured soldiers were transported to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, some 32 km (20 miles) to the east. Over 200 troops were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor to the town of Olenivka controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Malyar said.
All the evacuees will be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia, she added.
Mariupol’s Azovstal plant was believed to harbour some 600 troops. While Ukraine’s military confirmed that efforts to evacuate the remaining soldiers were under way, their actual numbers are unclear.
The Ukrainian troops defending Mariupol “has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement, adding that saving the lives of the personnel was now their priority.
Ukrainian resistance at the Azovstal steelworks effectively slowed down Russian forces’ expansion in the south-east, the statement says, preventing them from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia whose nuclear power plant is the largest in Europe.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an early morning address: “We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our men. There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care.”
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive” he then added. “This is our principle.”
Reactions in the press and public echo the praises the President and General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces addressed to the defenders of Mariupol, describing their service as a heroic sacrifice.
Defenders of Mariupol are heroes, they gave everything they had, and much, much more.
Any agreement that saves their lives is 100% worth taking.
— Oleksiy Sorokin (@mrsorokaa) May 16, 2022
The Azov regiment said it was following orders to save the lives of its troops. The Azov regiment, an all-volunteer militia with far-right origins, had incorporated the National Guard of Ukraine in 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin referenced the presence of neo-Nazi units in Ukraine as the primary reason for launching his “special military operation” in the country.
How will the loss of Mariupol impact the war?
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – which the Kremlin persists in calling a “special military operation” to de-nazify the country – the city of Mariupol had become a symbol of resistance against Russia as hundred of troops kept on fighting from the Azovstal steel plant even after the rest of the city had fallen.
The situation of Ukrainian defenders was already dire a month prior as ammunition quickly ran out, and their demise seemed imminent. Yet the troops held on to their position for another month, surviving in underground bunkers and deep tunnels built in case Russia decided to use chemical weapons against the city.
The port city of Mariupol has been at the centre of fierce fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces since the start of the war due to its key strategic location. Home to more than 400,000 people before the war, Mariupol was the fourth port of Ukraine, the biggest Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov, and the main port serving the industries and agriculture of eastern Ukraine. It is also the location of Ukraine’s largest metal plants.
The capture of Mariupol will grant Russia full control of the Sea of Azov coast, cutting Ukraine’s access to the sea and securing an overland bridge between mainland Russia, pro-Russian separatist territory, and the Crimea peninsula annexed in 2014.
Though the ceding of Mariupol to Russia is a significant loss and likely to strike a blow to Ukrainians’ morale, the Azov regiment said the prolonged defence of Mariupol has compelled Russia to focus an important part of its war effort on the city’s assault, ultimately buying time for the rest of Ukraine to fight Russian forces and secure western arms.
The Azovstal defenders pinned Russian forces in Mariupol until Ukraine won in Kharkiv. Encirclement of Kyiv’s troops in Donbas is now highly unlikely. Their contribution to the county’s freedom is immense. Their sacrifice should be celebrated as heroic. It will become historic.
— Maxim Tucker (@MaxRTucker) May 16, 2022
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Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine
While the evacuation of Mariupol troops is under way, Ukrainian fighters have managed to drive Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. It is said they have advanced as far as the border with Russia, though reports could not be immediately verified.
Fierce fighting and shelling were reported to continue over the country’s eastern territories.
Zelensky’s office said the front line around Donetsk is under continuous heavy shelling. According to the region’s governor, nine civilians were allegedly killed as a result of Russia’s attacks.
Reports also speak of a series of explosions in the western Ukraine city of Lviv early this morning. No casualties have been registered so far.
State emergency services have recently reported on a Russian airstrike on the village of Desna in the northern region of Chernihiv, which killed 8 people and wounded 12.
Finland and Sweden bring an end to decades of neutrality by joining NATO
Three months after the start of the war, Finland and Sweden officialised their bid to join NATO.
Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the news marked a major shift in rhetoric as he declared the expansion of NATO to Sweden and Finland posed “no direct threat” to Russia. He then warned, “the expansion of military infrastructure to these territories will certainly provoke our response.”
However, Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO is no done deed as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed his country’s intention to block the applications, citing the Nordic nations’ history of hosting members of Kurdish militant groups. He added that diplomatic delegations from the two countries should not even bother coming to Ankara to discuss an agreement.
Finally, the European bloc struggles to find consensus over strategies to achieve independence from Russia’s energy resources as Hungary persistently refuses to agree on an oil embargo against Russia, resulting in the country being accused of “holding the EU hostage.”
The EU is meeting this Wednesday to discuss two major issues in light of the Ukraine war, namely the suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact, and of course, the RePowerEU plan to achieve “strategic autonomy” following a transition to green energy.
While the West faces many inner challenges and Ukraine mourns the loss of its hero city, the continuous influx of reports on Russia’s heavy losses does cast doubt on whether the capture of ravaged Mariupol is strong enough a victory to help Russian forces reverse the situation in which they are mired.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: An Azov Special Forces Regiment serviceman, injured during fighting against Russian forces, poses for a photographer inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Featured Photo Credit: Dmytro ‘Orest’ Kozatskyi/Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office via AP/Flickr.