Ukraine on Friday ordered its last troops holed up in Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks to lay down their arms, while Russia said its months-long operation to capture the strategic port city was now over.
Russia’s crushing of Mariupol prompted multiple war crimes charges, including a deadly attack on a maternity hospital, and Ukraine has begun a legal tally for captured Russian troops.
The first post-invasion trial of a Russian soldier for war crimes came to a head in kyiv, after 21-year-old Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin admitted to killing an unarmed civilian early in the offensive. The verdict is due on Monday.
Shishimarin told the court on Friday that he was “really sorry.” But his lawyer said in closing arguments that the young soldier was “not guilty” of premeditated murder and war crimes.
As Ukrainian forces repelled the Russian offensive around kyiv, aided by a steady infusion of Western weaponry, eastern Ukraine and Mariupol in the south bore the brunt of a ground and artillery attack. without remorse.
“The Russian occupation forces are conducting intense fire along the entire line of contact and are trying to drive artillery deep into the defenses of the Ukrainian troops,” the spokesman for the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense told reporters. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk.
The fighting is fiercest in the eastern region of Donbass, a Russian-speaking area partially controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014.
“In the Donbass, the occupiers are trying to increase the pressure,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Thursday evening. “There is hell – and that’s no exaggeration.”
In the eastern city of Severodonetsk, 12 people were also killed and 40 others injured by Russian shelling, the regional governor said.
“End of Operation”
Zelensky described the shelling of Severodonetsk as “brutal and utterly unnecessary”, as residents cowering in basements described an endless ordeal of terror.
The city is part of the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in Lugansk, which together with the neighboring Donetsk region includes the Donbass war zone.
Moscow said on Friday the battle for the Azovstal steel plant – a totemic symbol of Ukraine’s fierce resistance since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24 – was now over.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenko said 2,439 Ukrainians had visited the steel plant since May 16, up from 500 on Friday.
Shoigu had informed Putin of “the end of the operation and the complete liberation of the industrial complex (Azovstal) and the city of Mariupol”, added Konashenko.
The commander of the Ukrainian Azov regiment, Denys Prokopenko, said earlier that only the dead remained.
“The higher military command gave the order to save the lives of the soldiers of our garrison and to stop defending the city,” he said in a video on Telegram.
“I now hope that soon the families and all of Ukraine will be able to bury their fighters with honors.”
Ukraine wants to exchange surrendered soldiers from Azovstal for Russian prisoners. But in Donetsk, the pro-Kremlin authorities are in turn threatening to bring some of them to justice.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has urged both sides to grant it access to prisoners of war and civilian internees, “wherever they are held”.
“Many more families need answers,” he said in a statement.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said all POWs must “be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and the laws of war.”
President Joe Biden has framed the war in Ukraine as part of a US-led struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
The US Congress this week approved a $40 billion (38 billion euro) aid package, including funds to improve Ukraine’s armored vehicle fleet and air defense system.
And meeting in Germany, the industrialized countries of the G7 pledged $19.8 billion to shore up Ukraine’s crumbling public finances.
Biden offered “total, total and complete support” for Finland and Sweden in their bid to join the NATO military alliance, when he welcomed their leaders to the White House on Thursday.
But NATO’s current 30 members must agree on any new entrants, and Turkey has condemned the alleged tolerance of historically non-aligned northern neighbors towards Kurdish militants.
Shoigu said the Kremlin would respond to any NATO expansion by creating more military bases in western Russia.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has waned around the northeastern city of Kharkiv as its troops are forced to withdraw from a rearguard offensive by defense forces.
But Kharkiv remains within range of Russian artillery, and hundreds of people refuse to leave the relative safety of its metro system.
“We are tired. You can see what comfort in our home,” said Kateryna Talpa, 35, pointing to mattresses and sheets on the floor, and food in a cardboard box.
She and her husband Yuriy do their best to get along in the Soviet-era station called “Heroes of Labor”, alongside their cats Marek and Sima.
“They got used to it,” Talpa said.