Russia has claimed that more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines have surrendered in the southern city of Mariupol, but there were competing views about whether the devastating seven-week battle for control of the strategic port on the Sea of Azov was continuing.
Ukraine did not confirm the surrender Wednesday and said that two units of its forces still in the city had instead managed to link up. Mamuka Mamulashvili, the commander of the Georgian Legion, a battalion of volunteer fighters, told The Globe and Mail that his unit had troops “near Mariupol” who were still fighting.
Mr. Mamulashvili said he also had friends among the Ukrainian forces holed up in the massive Azovstal steel factory. He said he had spoken to them in recent days and did not believe they would have surrendered.
“I would know,” he said when asked whether the battle for Mariupol had ended, though he would not discuss the number of fighters who were still holding out. “They have not surrendered. There are still Ukrainian army forces and Georgians there.”
Mariupol has been the scene of some of the worst civilian suffering of the war since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion on Feb. 24.
While more than half the city’s prewar population is believed to have fled, humanitarian aid organizations say about 160,000 people have been trapped in the city – and have gone without regular supplies of food, water or electricity since mid-March.
The Ukrainian government says at least 22,000 people have died in Mariupol and 80 to 90 per cent of all buildings are believed to have been damaged or destroyed.
On March 16, Russian forces bombed the city’s Drama Theatre while hundreds of civilians were sheltering inside.
Civilian convoys have also been repeatedly prevented from fleeing the city, and local authorities say tens of thousands of residents have instead been forcibly deported to Russia.
Mariupol this week was also the site of the first alleged use of chemical weapons – possibly phosphorus munitions – by Russian forces, though Western and Ukrainian officials say it cannot be confirmed because investigators cannot access the site.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden called Russia’s actions in Ukraine “a genocide” for the first time, referring to apparent war crimes committed around the country. “Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Mr. Biden’s remarks “unacceptable.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed them as “true words of a true leader.”
Mr. Biden made his comments after Russia’s withdrawal from the outskirts of Kyiv revealed the mass murder, organized rape and widespread destruction committed during the month that satellite towns such as Bucha and Borodyanka were under Russian occupation.
Ukrainian officials believe that even worse has taken place in Mariupol. Svyatoslav Yurash, an MP from Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party and a member of the parliamentary foreign relations committee, told The Globe he believed an “unimaginable” number of people had been killed in the city.
He said it was unclear whether the fight for the city was over.
“The reality now is that Mariupol is the site of a heroic battle. Our troops there are showing us how to resist, how to battle to the very last soldier,” Mr. Yurash said.
Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for Russia’s military, told the official Tass news service that 162 officers and 47 women were among the 1,059 Ukrainian marines who had “voluntarily laid down their arms and surrendered in the area of the Ilyicha metals factory in the city of Mariupol.”
Russian state television showed images of dozens of men in military uniforms walking with their hands in the air, while others were carried on stretchers.
Russia’s Defence Ministry later said Mariupol’s industrial port was now under full control.
The claims were made two days after a post on the Facebook page of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade criticized its military leadership for abandoning the unit, which the post suggested would soon be unable to continue fighting. “For over a month, the marines fought without replenishment of ammunition, without food, without water, drinking from a puddle and dying in batches,” the post reads.
The head of Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence agency told The Globe that efforts to resupply the remaining Ukrainian troops in Mariupol were difficult but continuing.
“The situation in Mariupol is the most complicated situation in Ukraine right now, Major-General Kyrylo Budanov said. “Every resupply of the forces which are defending Mariupol is a special operation which demonstrates the heroism of our warriors.”
Capturing Mariupol would be a major gain for Russia, giving it complete control of the Sea of Azov and an uninterrupted stretch of territory between its own border and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014. It would also give its military its first significant victory in Ukraine since an attempt to capture the capital failed. Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region in late March after a month-long battle.
Mariupol is the biggest port in the Donbas region, which Mr. Putin formally recognized as “independent” from Ukraine in February. One of Russia’s stated war aims is to “liberate” all of Donbas, an objective that has risen in importance for Moscow after the failure to seize Kyiv.
The fall of Mariupol would also free up Russian forces to fight on other fronts. On Tuesday, Mr. Putin said the war would continue until all of Russia’s goals in Ukraine were achieved.
Mr. Putin has claimed – despite the fact Mr. Zelensky is Jewish and that far-right groups have performed poorly in elections – that Ukraine is under the control of “Nazis” and needs to be demilitarized.
The Ukrainian fighters holding out in the Azovstal steel factory were primarily members of the Azov Battalion, a unit infamous for wearing far-right insignia. Destroying the battalion, which has about 900 members, is another stated Russian war aim.
Kremlin-controlled media have also accused the Georgian Legion of war crimes after a video surfaced last month showing the roadside execution of at least one Russian soldier who was injured and whose hands were tied. Mr. Mamulashvili said Wednesday that the fighters in the video – at least one of whom has been identified as Georgian – were not members of his unit.
He said the Georgian Legion – which consists of about 700 troops from Georgia, along with some other international volunteers – was, like the regular Ukrainian army, redirecting forces previously deployed around Kyiv south, toward Mariupol, now that Russia had withdrawn its army from around the capital. He said Mariupol could still be liberated from Russian control.
“It is possible – and we will do it.”
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