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The war in Mariupol is almost over, Ukraine and Russia both claim victory

The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol almost fell into Russian hands after hundreds of Russian troops left the Azovstal steel plant, Ukraine’s last stronghold of resistance in the city.

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A convoy of buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers after leaving Azovstal. Photo: Reuters

According to the AP news agency, Mariupol will be the largest city in Ukraine that forces Russia controlled, it would give Moscow a much-needed victory even though it’s already in ruins.

More than 260 Ukrainian fighters, some seriously injured and carried out on stretchers, left the rubble of the Azovstal factory earlier this week and laid down their weapons under an agreement reached by the two warring parties. Ukrainian officials say they are working to get the remaining soldiers out of the steel plant, although it is not clear how many are still inside.

Russia called the operation a “mass surrender” while the Ukrainians avoided using the word and instead said their garrison had accomplished the task.

“Ukraine needs heroes to live. That’s our principle,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, announcing the soldiers. Ukraine has begun to leave the Azovstal steel plant.

It is not clear what will happen to these soldiers. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on May 17 that the country could conduct an exchange of Russian prisoners of war with wounded soldiers who had just left the Azovstal factory. “We are implementing the next stages of humanitarian action,” the Ukrainian leader said. Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that after leaving the Azovstal factory, Ukrainian soldiers will be treated according to international law.

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Ukrainian soldiers lay down their weapons. Photo: RT

Gaining full control of Mariupol would help Russia secure a land route connecting the Crimean peninsula with mainland Russia and the separatist-held eastern regions of Ukraine. It also helped liberate Russian troops fighting in the Donbass, giving Moscow an important victory.

Retired Vice-Admiral Michel Olhagaray, former head of France’s Center for Advanced Military Research, said the downfall of Azovstal would be more of a symbolic boost to Russia than a military event because on the ground. Mariupol has in fact fallen. “Mr Putin can declare victory in the Donbass.” However, given the incredible resistance of Ukrainian troops to contain the Russians, Ukraine can also claim victory. “Both sides will be able to boast or talk about a victory – many different types of victories,” commented Michel Olhagaray.

Earlier, Ukraine highlighted the role of troops in Azovstal in boosting Ukrainian morale as well as in restraining Russian forces from being deployed elsewhere. Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar lavished praise on the troops at the Azovstal plant and said that the Russians could not defeat the “Azovstal steel fortress” by military means. “The defenders of Mariupol have fully completed the tasks assigned to them by their commanders.”

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