Ukraine’s military command said in early hours on Tuesday that the mission to defend the besieged Azovstal steel plant by “the heroes of our time” in the strategic southern port of Mariupol is over and pledged to rescue servicemen still trapped inside.
“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement. “The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel … Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time.”
A total of 53 injured servicemen were evacuated to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol, on Monday and a further 211 were taken to another point, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said.
Five buses and an armoured personnel carrier carrying the servicemen arrived late on Monday in Novoazovsk, and some of the evacuees were carried out on stretchers into a hospital, a Reuters witness said. Novoazovsk is now under the control of Russia-backed separatists who have held parts of eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Since Russia launched its invasion in February, Mariupol’s devastation has become a symbol both of Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russia’s invasion and of Russia’s willingness to devastate Ukrainian cities that hold out.
Azovstal’s last defenders had been holding out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels built deep underground to withstand nuclear war. Civilians were evacuated from inside the plant, one of the largest metallurgical facilities in Europe, earlier this month.
“Efforts to rescue defenders who remain on the territory of Azovstal continue,” the military said.
There has been no immediate response from Moscow authorities to the developments in Azovstal.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his nightly video address, called Monday a “difficult” day.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle. I think that every reasonable person will understand these words,” Mr. Zelensky said.
“The work continues to bring the boys home, and this work needs delicacy. And time.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s invading forces have run into apparent setbacks, with troops forced out of the north and the environs of Kyiv in late March. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east.
Areas around Kyiv and the western city of Lviv, near the Polish border, have continued to come under Russian attack. A series of explosions struck Lviv early on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.
On Monday, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 40 kilometres north of Kharkiv.
The successes near Kharkiv could let Ukraine attack supply lines for Russia’s main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month yet achieving only small gains.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on Monday to climb down from threats to retaliate against Sweden and Finland for announcing plans to join the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.
“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states – none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries,” Mr. Putin said.
The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric, after years of casting NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.
Soon before Mr. Putin spoke, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Finland and Sweden were making a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences: “They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it.”
Mr. Putin said NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and that Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.
“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that [response] will be – we will see what threats are created for us,” Mr. Putin said.
Finland and Sweden, both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, say they now want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.
“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon militarily non-aligned status – a cornerstone of national identity for more than 200 years.
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