kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP), May 20 – Russia has declared victory in its months-long operation to capture the strategic port of Mariupol after Ukraine ordered the last of its soldiers holed up in Azovstal steelworks to lay down their arms.
Moscow’s crushing of Mariupol prompted multiple war crimes charges, including a deadly attack on a maternity hospital, and Ukraine began a legal count of captured Russian troops.
The first post-invasion war crimes trial of a Russian soldier came to a head in Kyiv on Friday after Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21, admitted killing an unarmed civilian early in the offensive. The verdict is due on Monday.
Shishimarin told the court he was “really sorry.” But his lawyer said in closing arguments that the young soldier was “not guilty” of premeditated murder and war crimes.
Since Ukrainian forces repelled the Russian offensive around kyiv, eastern Ukraine and Mariupol to the south have borne the brunt of remorseless ground and artillery attack.
The fighting is fiercest in the eastern region of Donbass, a Russian-speaking area partially controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014.
“Attempts to attack Donbass continue. They have completely ruined Rubizhne, Vonokvakha, just like Mariupol,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late night video address on Friday night, adding that the Russians were “trying to do the same with Severodonetsk and many other cities.”
In the eastern city of Severodonetsk, 12 people were 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 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.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Putin of “the end of the operation and the complete liberation of the industrial complex (Azovstal) and the city of Mariupol”, added Konashenko.
Ukraine hopes to exchange the surrendered Azovstal soldiers for Russian prisoners. But in Donetsk, pro-Kremlin authorities are threatening to sue some of them.
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.
– The price of Finland –
The economic repercussions of the war continued to spread on Saturday, as Russia cut off its natural gas supply to neighboring Finland.
“Finland’s natural gas supply under the Gasum supply contract has been interrupted,” Finland’s national energy company Gasum said in a statement, adding that gas would instead be supplied from other sources. via the Balticconnector gas pipeline, which connects Finland to Estonia.
Gasum revealed a day earlier that the tap would be turned off when its contract with Russia’s Gazprom ended at 7:00 a.m. (0400 GMT) on Saturday.
The move, which Russia has blamed on the Nordic country’s refusal to pay in rubles, comes days after Finland and Sweden submitted a joint application for NATO membership.
Moscow has repeatedly warned historically non-aligned Finland that applying for membership would be “a serious mistake with far-reaching consequences”.
Finland and Sweden are apparently on the fast track to joining the defense alliance, with Biden offering “full, total and complete support” for their offers.
But NATO’s current 30 members must agree on any new entrants, and Turkey has condemned the Nordic neighbors’ alleged tolerance of Kurdish militants.
Shoigu said the Kremlin would respond to any NATO expansion by creating more military bases in western Russia.
The halt to gas shipments on Saturday follows Moscow cutting off Poland and Bulgaria last month in a move the EU called “blackmail”.
– Underground life –
As the invasion that sparked potential NATO expansion has waned around the northeast city of Kharkiv, it remains within range of Russian artillery and hundreds refuse to leave safety relative to its metro system.
” We are tired. You can see the comfort we have at 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 at the Soviet-era station called “Heroes of Labour”, alongside their cats Marek and Sima.
“They got used to it,” Talpa said.
In the town of Lozova, at least eight people, including a child, were injured on Friday when a powerful Russian missile fire destroyed a recently repaired cultural center, the largest in the region.
Kharkiv Regional Governor Oleg Sinegubov said all eight were hit by shrapnel after three Russian missiles were fired at the 1,000-person capacity building.