The strategically key southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol appeared to fall to Russian forces on Tuesday, a rare breakthrough for Moscow as its forces remained largely bogged down in much of the country after nearly three months of hard fighting, according to Western intelligence assessments.
While Russian forces have been pushed into a smaller and smaller stretch of Ukraine‘s east, the Ukrainian military’s decision to abandon a steel plant in Mariupol, where hundreds of its fighters held out for months under relentless bombardment, may give Moscow a badly needed battle win, although the city has largely been reduced to rubble.
The determined defense by a remnant of Ukrainian forces has taken on immense symbolic importance for both sides in the fighting. Russian forces have been seeking full control of the port as part of a strategy for a “land bridge” across southern Ukraine, while the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pointed to the Ukrainian defenders as an inspiration for the nation as a whole. It was unclear whether the surrendering Ukrainian troops would be sent home or kept as prisoners.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak likened the Ukrainian defenders to the vastly outnumbered Spartans who held out against Persian forces in ancient Greece. He said on Twitter: “83 days of Mariupol defense will go down in history as the Thermopylae of the [21st] century.”
The U.S. and European resolve against the military aggression unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to mount. Finland and Sweden pressed ahead with plans to apply for membership in NATO despite vocal opposition from major alliance member Turkey.
Biden administration officials have signaled a desire to use a visit to Washington by Finnish and Swedish leaders this week to finesse Turkish complaints that the two Nordic countries support Kurdish militants that Ankara deems as terrorists. President Biden will host Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at the White House on Thursday.
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Mr. Putin was relatively muted Tuesday about the NATO developments, though analysts say they are a source of outrage inside the Kremlin. Russian officials say NATO’s eastward “expansion” since the end of the Cold War sparked the campaign in Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.
The Russian president sought to sow discord within the European Union, whose members have been locked in a debate for weeks over whether to impose a total ban on Russian oil. Several key nations, including Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary and Poland, heavily depend on Russian energy, and some have balked at harsh sanctions on Moscow.
Mr. Putin said during a televised meeting with government-owned oil industry managers that it will be too great of a struggle for some European countries to embrace the proposed ban on Russian oil.
The debate has been stalled since last week after Hungary announced that it would veto any vote on the measure. Mr. Putin appeared eager to exploit the matter.
“Obviously, some EU states, in whose energy balance the share of Russian hydrocarbons is especially high, will not be able to do this for a long time, to ditch our oil,” he said Tuesday, according to Reuters.
With Russia facing the threat of an oil production decline at a rate not seen since the early-1990s collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin said Western sanctions are to blame for increases in global oil prices and general inflation surging across Europe.
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Mariupol in ruins
After Russian forces failed to take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv during the initial phase of the war, Moscow made Mariupol a major target of the Kremlin’s revised war plan aimed at controlling areas of Ukraine‘s east.
Analysts say Mr. Putin‘s goal in recent weeks has been to solidify the Russian military’s grip on territory between the Russian border to the north and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014. Mariupol is situated in the midst of that territory along the Sea of Azov.
Under a deal recently negotiated between Moscow and Kyiv, nearly 300 Ukrainian fighters — some of them seriously wounded and taken out on stretchers — left the ruins of the Azovstal steel plant on Monday and turned themselves over to the Russian side.
Russian officials claimed the development amounted to surrender, but Kyiv avoided that term. Ukraine said the Azovstal garrison had completed its mission and that there was no way to rescue its members militarily in a city that was otherwise entirely in Russian hands.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It’s our principle,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in announcing that troops had begun leaving the mill and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar expressed hope that the fighters would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, although it was not clear Tuesday whether such a deal would be struck.
Speculation over the fate of Azov Regiment, which is reported to have ties to the far right and whose members had been defending the steel plant in Mariupol, has swirled in recent days.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, has said without evidence that there were “war criminals” among the Ukrainian soldiers defending Azovstal and they should not be exchanged but tried. Russia’s top prosecutor has asked the Russian Supreme Court to designate the regiment as a terrorist organization.
The Associated Press reported that the soldiers who left the plant Monday were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses accompanied by Russian military vehicles and taken to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. More than 50 of the fighters were seriously wounded, both sides said.
Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
The developments signal the beginning of the end of a nearly three-month siege that turned Mariupol into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering. Ukraine says the Russian military’s bombardment of the city killed more than 20,000 civilians and left the remaining inhabitants — perhaps one-quarter of the southern port city’s prewar population of 430,000 — with little food, water, heat or medicine.
During the siege, Russian forces launched lethal airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken shelter. Close to 600 people may have been killed at the theater.
In other developments Tuesday, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, said he sent a team of 42 investigators, forensic experts and support personnel to Ukraine to look into suspected war crimes. Ukraine has accused Russian forces of torture and killing civilians.
The World Health Organization has verified 226 attacks on health care facilities in Ukraine — almost three per day on average — since the Russian invasion began, according to the agency’s Europe director, Hans Kluge. The targeted strikes have killed at least 75 people and wounded 59, he said.
“These attacks are not justifiable. They are never OK, and they must be investigated,” he said.
In Washington, the prime minister of Greece told lawmakers in a joint session of Congress that bigger issues were at stake in the Russia-Ukraine clash.
“[Putin] must not succeed, not only for the sake of Ukraine but also in order to send a message to all authoritarian leaders that historical revisionism and open acts of aggression that violate international law will not be tolerated by the global community of democratic states,” said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who received several standing ovations during his remarks at the U.S. Capitol.
The prime minister met with Mr. Biden on Monday to discuss international efforts to help Ukraine, Greece’s relationship with the U.S. and bringing down global energy prices.
• Mica Soellner contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.