The fall of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol to Russia appeared imminent Tuesday as Ukraine moved to abandon the city’s sprawling steel plant, and hundreds of Kyiv fighters who had been holed up there turned themselves over to Russian forces in a deal reached by the warring parties.
The capture of Mariupol, a prewar city of 430,000 people along the north coast of the Sea of Azov, would be Moscow’s biggest success in its nearly three-month offensive against Ukraine.
But Russia is struggling to capture more territory in eastern Ukraine and has failed to topple the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or take the capital, Kyiv.
Under constant Russian shelling, which Ukraine estimates has killed 20,000 civilians in Mariupol, much of the city has been reduced to rubble. What’s left of it is situated between the Russian mainland and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
More than 260 Ukrainian fighters — some of them seriously wounded and lying on stretchers — left the ruins of the Azovstal steel plant on Monday and turned themselves over to Russian forces. Ukrainian authorities said they were working to remove its remaining soldiers from the steel mill, but it was not clear how many remained.
Russia called the operation a mass surrender. The Ukrainians, in contrast, said its garrison had completed its mission.
“The goal was that our guys, who heroically defend the city and restrain the enemy directly in Mariupol, did not allow them to pass through Mariupol,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told VOA’s Ukrainian Service. “That is, they saved the nation, they allowed the Armed Forces of Ukraine to prepare and other cities to be more prepared for this terrible war that has already taken place in Ukraine.”
It was not clear what would happen to the Ukrainian fighters. A Russian official cast doubt on a full-scale prisoner exchange.
Fifty-three seriously injured fighters were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said. Novoazovsk is under the control of Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists.
Another 211 fighters were taken to the town of Olenivka, an area also controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Malyar said, adding that the evacuees would be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia.
During his nightly video address to the nation, Zelenskyy discussed the evacuation of soldiers from Mariupol.
“The operation to rescue the defenders of Mariupol was started by our military and intelligence officers. To bring the boys home, the work continues, and this work needs delicacy. And time.”
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters it is “difficult to know” what the end of combat operations in Mariupol means.
“We have long talked about the significance of Mariupol as a major economic port on the Sea of Azov and also geographically relevant to the fighting in the east,” Kirby said.
He added that Russia has a clear intent “to encircle and to occupy the Donbas and the eastern part of the country,” but that “they have not succeeded in that.”
Sweden and Finland presented their applications to join the NATO military alliance Wednesday in Brussels, with ambassadors from both countries meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
“This is a good day at a critical moment for our security,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “Thank you so much for handing over the applications for Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO. Every nation has the right to choose its own path. You have both made your own choice after thorough democratic processes, and I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO.”
The moves come in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and represent major shifts for both Sweden and Finland which have long stayed out of such alliances.
Their applications must be approved by all 30 of the existing NATO members. Turkey has expressed its opposition, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing Sweden and Finland of giving safe haven to “terrorists” and imposing sanctions on Turkey.
Discussion of Turkey’s position will continue Wednesday as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in New York.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Tuesday that after talks with NATO allies there is “strong consensus” for admitting Sweden and Finland, and that “we are confident we’ll be able to preserve that consensus.”
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.