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Russia has claimed to have finally captured the besieged city of Mariupol, bringing an end to a bloody three-month assault that is believed to have left nearly 20,000 civilians dead or missing.
The Kremlin announced on Friday (20 May) that it had finalised the 'complete liberation' of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol - the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance - and taken control of the strategic port city after months of fighting which had reduced most of the area to rubble.
For months, the last pockets of Ukrainian resistance had been holed up inside the vast steelworks, waging guerilla warfare against the occupiers and preventing Russia from establishing complete control over the city.
The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out far longer than expected, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire as part of their last stand before their government ordered them to abandon the plant's defence and save themselves earlier this week.
Russian state media has since quoted the ministry of defence as saying a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at the steelworks had surrendered since Monday, including over 500 additional troops on Friday.
The defence of the steel mill had been spearheaded by the controversial far-right Azov regiment, whose surrender has been seen as a major propaganda victory for the Kremlin as part of its efforts to frame their invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to ‘denazify’ the country.
Surrendering troops were subsequently taken prisoner by the Russians, with some being shipped off to penal colonies whilst others were said to be hospitalised.
Russia also said that the Azov commander had been escorted from the plant in an armoured vehicle.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed earlier this week that the plant’s last remaining defenders had been given permission to leave.
"Today the boys received a clear signal from the military command that they can get out and save their lives," he told a Ukrainian television channel on Friday, before claiming that the embittered troops had ‘fulfilled their mission’ by tying down and frustrating Moscow’s forces, hindering their efforts to take control of the East.
However, either way the capture of Mariupol must be seen as Russia’s biggest victory in the conflict to date, and gives Putin a much-needed win in the war he started on February 24 following numerous strategic setbacks such as the failure to capture Kyiv, a major pullback of troops and the sinking of the Russian fleet’s flagship in the Black Sea.
Despite this, military analysts have pointed out that the city's capture is in essence more of a symbolic victory than anything else, since Mariupol had already effectively been under Moscow’s control for some time and that most of the Russian forces occupying the area had already left.
By capturing the city, the Kremlin had sought control 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 control of the Donbas. The city’s loss also deprives Ukraine of a vital seaport, although the country does not maintain a naval fleet.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, subsequently described the defence of Mariupol as 'the Thermopylae of the 21st century', in reference to the famous battle between 300 spartans and the much larger Persian empire, who held off their attackers much longer than expected before finally succumbing to defeat.
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