ZAPORIZHZHIA, April 22 — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday claimed the “liberation” of the flattened city of Mariupol after nearly two months of fighting, demanding its trapped Ukrainian defenders be sealed into their underground last stand.

The fate of the besieged port has become totemic as Russia battles to complete a land bridge covering territories already under its control, including Crimea — which would deprive Ukraine of its industrial heartland and most of its coastline.

President Joe Biden, however, said Putin was doomed to failure, announcing US$800 million (RM3.4 billion) in extra US military aid including howitzers and tactical drones.

“Our unity at home with our allies and partners, and our unity with the Ukrainian people, is sending an unmistakable message to Putin — he will never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine,” he said.

Ukraine appealed for an immediate humanitarian corridor to allow civilians and wounded fighters to be evacuated from Mariupol’s sprawling Azovstal steel plant.

“They have almost no food, water, essential medicine,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said.

Three school buses filled with Mariupol evacuees including women and children arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia after crossing through territory held by Russian forces.

Exhausted evacuee Valentina, 73, told AFP she urgently needed medication for her back as she struggled to remain standing.

“My apartment has been destroyed just like the house of my son,” she said, still wearing her slippers along with a torn black coat.

“From day one we were in a basement. It was cold. We were praying to God. I was asking him to protect us.”

Civilians trapped

The flow of Western military aid has helped force Russia to deflect its offensive to eastern Ukraine and accentuated the pressure on places like Mariupol on the shores of the Sea of Azov.

“Mariupol has been liberated,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin during a televised meeting. “The remaining nationalist formations took refuge in the industrial zone of the Azovstal plant.”

Shoigu said around 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers remained inside the site, where the last pocket of resistance has been sheltering in a network of tunnels. 

Up to 2,000 civilians are also enduring terrible conditions as they seek refuge inside the plant, according to Ukrainian authorities.

Putin said the “liberation” of Mariupol was a “success” for Russian forces but ordered Shoigu to call off the planned storming of the plant.

“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities. Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly can escape,” Putin said.

Olexiy Arestovych, an advisor to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, said that Russia had in fact diverted forces to fight for all of Lugansk and Donetsk, two regions of Ukraine controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.

“They won’t succeed,” Arestovych warned.

Another agreement to evacuate civilians from three cities in the southeast region of Kherson region failed Thursday, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, as Russian shelling was not halted.

She demanded the release of an Ukrainian official who was captured by Russian soldiers when leading an evacuation column.

Bodies pile up

The West staged a fresh show of support for Zelensky with a visit to Kyiv by the Spanish and Danish prime ministers, who both pledged more military assistance.

Germany, under fire for not giving more to Zelensky’s government, said it had agreed with eastern European partners to indirectly supply Ukraine with heavy weapons.

“It’s about tanks, armoured vehicles, or other options individual countries are able to give,” Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said, explaining that Germany would then replenish those countries’ stocks.

Addressing leaders of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank via video link, Zelensky said the country needs US$7 billion a month to function after the devastation inflicted by Russia.

The “Russian military are aimed at destroying all objects in Ukraine that can serve as an economic base for life. That includes railroad stations, food warehouses, oil, refineries,” he said.

In the latest deaths, two civilians died in shelling in the eastern region of Kharkiv, regional governor Oleg Sinegoubov announced on his Telegram channel.

In all, according to new UN figures, at least 2,345 Ukrainian civilians have been killed since Russia invaded on February 24.

In morgues around Kyiv, the bodies of some 1,020 civilians are being stored after Russian troops withdrew from the region, Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna told AFP.

The bodies of nine civilians, some showing signs of torture, were found in the town of Borodyanka outside the capital, Ukrainian police said.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, visiting Borodyanka, said he was “shocked to witness the horror and atrocities of Putin’s war”.

In Bucha near Kyiv, some 400 bodies have been discovered since the Russians withdrew on March 31. Around a quarter of them are still unidentified.

Exodus, and returnees

Retaliating against US sanctions, Russia imposed a travel ban on Vice President Kamala Harris, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and 27 other prominent Americans.

But Russia’s international isolation deepened in turn.

A June meeting of the UN cultural agency’s World Heritage Committee scheduled to take place in the Russian city of Kazan was postponed indefinitely, a senior Unesco source told AFP.

More than 7.7 million people are estimated to be internally displaced inside Ukraine, and more than five million have fled to other countries, the United Nations said, in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

But returns have also accelerated in recent weeks, reaching over one million, according to a spokesman for Kyiv’s border force. 

Those returning must often take huge risks. Olena Klymenko said Ukrainian soldiers had been de-mining her village of Moshchun.

“We found a booby trap in our garden. It seems it was disarmed. We don’t know,” said Klymenko, whose home was destroyed. “Still, we need to look for our stuff.” — AFP