Speed Reads

Frying pan or fire

Putin tells defense minister on TV to seal off but not storm last Ukrainian stronghold in Mariupol

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his defense minister to block off the sprawling Azovstal Steel and Iron Works in Mariupol, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the besieged city, "so that not even a fly comes through." But he also told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a televised event, not to storm the steel plant. "There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities," Putin said, expressing concern about "preserving the life and health of our soldiers and officers."

Ukraine's 36th Marine Brigade and Azov Brigade joined forces last week and are holed up in the four-square-mile steel plant. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Thursday that "about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded servicemen" are in Azovstal, and she urged the Russians to allow them to evacuate through a safety corridor. 

Putin said captives who lay down their weapons would be given "decent treatment in accordance with the relevant international legal acts." He also congratulated Shoigu on the "great achievement" of "completing the military task of liberating Mariupol."

"Putin and Shoigu's comments appeared to reflect a change in strategy in Mariupol, where the Russians previously seemed determined to take every last inch of the city," The Associated Press notes. "But it was not clear what it would mean in practical terms."

This is mostly "the Kremlin's PR machine" telling "the Russian people that everything is going according to plan," writes BBC News Moscow's Jenny Hill. "In reality, nothing has substantially changed over the last few days. Fighters are still in the Azovstal steelworks." Britain's Ministry of Defense assessed Thursday that "Russia likely desires to demonstrate significant successes ahead of their annual 9th May Victory Day celebrations.""

"The news that the steel plant is not going to be stormed will be something of a relief, I think, to the men who have been defending it so determinedly," BBC News' Joe Inwood writes from Kyiv. "They are running out of ammunition and food supplies," and "if the Russians are able to seal off the entire Azovstal steelworks, then of course supplies will run out. But if the Russians use this as an opportunity to take some forces away, that may give the Ukrainian fighters an opportunity to break out. We don't know how this is going to play out."