Ukraine Situation Report: Russian Forces Lose Ground Despite Impending Fall Of Mariupol
Russia says 1,730 Ukrainians have surrendered in Mariupol, but some defenders are still holding out.
Russian authorities claim that at least 1,730 Ukrainian personnel have now left the Azovstal steelworks and surrendered in the strategic southern port city of Mariupol. The Red Cross has been collecting personnel information from those individuals as part of efforts to formally register them as prisoners of war in the hopes that this will help prevent them from being subjected to any injustices while in Russian detention.
This is all part of a deal between the Russian and Ukrainian governments that was mediated, at least in part, by the Red Cross and the United Nations. Ukrainian officials have said that they are hoping to secure the freedom of those who have surrendered through a prisoner swap. However, their Russian counterparts now appear to be pushing back on the idea that such a swap was inevitable, raising questions about what might happen to the members of Ukraine's security forces and volunteers who are now in custody.
How many Ukrainians remain within the cavernous Azovstal complex is unclear. At the time of writing, the Russian military does not appear to have claimed to have fully secured the facility, which would finally put it in total control of Mariupol. Seizing the port city has been a key operational objective from the beginning, given its strategic location along an overland route between Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Completely defeating the defiant defenders who had been holding out at Azovstal will offer an important propaganda victory, too.
What increasingly appears to be the now-inevitable fall of Mariupol comes amid reports that the Russian military has been sacking officers, including generals and admirals, over poor performance in the course of the conflict so far. Russian advances continue to be more or less stalled elsewhere in Ukraine, with Ukrainian forces continuing to capitalize on that and seize the initiative. The U.S. government, among others, has been increasingly pointing to the likelihood of the conflict dragging out for a prolonged period, if it does not outright reach a stalemate situation.
WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.
Before diving into the last news below, The War Zone readers can first get up to speed on how the conflict in Ukraine has progressed already with our preceding rolling coverage here.
POSTED: 8:50 PM EST—
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said earlier today that 771 Ukrainian personnel from Azovstal had surrendered in the preceding 24 hours, bringing the total number of individuals who have left the complex and are now in detention to 1,730. Those figures have not been independently confirmed, despite the Red Cross's efforts to register them. Authorities in Russia announced the first surrenders on Monday as part of what Ukrainian officials later confirmed was an agreed-upon plan to end the siege of Mariupol.
Seriously wounded Ukrainian personnel are reportedly being sent to a military hospital in Novoazovsk, while others are now being held at the site of a former penal colony in Olenivka. Both of these locations are in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, also known as the DNR, a breakaway area in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. The Russian government recognized the DNR, as well as the separatist Luhansk People's Republic, or LNR, as independent countries in the immediate run-up to the all-out invasion of Ukraine in February.
What will happen now to surrendered Ukrainian forces, especially members of the controversial far-right Azov Regiment, which includes members who openly espouse neo-Nazi ideology, remains to be seen. Those who surrender in Mariupol will be treated “consistent with the respective international laws," Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's top spokesperson, said today. However, there are growing calls from Russian politicians and separatist figures to put at least some of these individuals, especially the Azov members, on trial, which in turn calls into question the prospects for a future prisoner swap.
A court should decide the fate of "those who appear to be nationalists," Denis Pushilin, the ostensible leader of the DNR told a local media outlet according to secondary reports. He reportedly added that top Azov members have yet to emerge from Azovstal. Earlier in the week, Russian authorities said they planned to question those who had surrendered as part of an investigation into "Ukrainian war crimes."
“An operation is underway, the details of which I will not announce,” Svyatoslav Palamar, Azov's Deputy head, who is among those still in the steelworks claiming to still be fighting on, said in a separate video message circulated on social media.
Independent human rights group Amnesty International called for assurances that all of those at Azovstal who surrender will be treated humanely. The organization added that it "has documented summary killings of captives by Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine."
The AP reported today, citing an anonymous U.S. official, that American authorities have intelligence indicating that Russian commanders themselves are concerned about abuses their forces are committing in Mariupol.
Ukrainian officials said earlier in the week that there were negotiations ongoing about what might happen next to those surrendering in Mariupol, including a possible prisoner swap.
Regardless, as already noted, the final collapse of the Ukrainian defense of Mariupol is set to be a significant victory for Russia both operationally and from the propaganda perspective. For weeks now, forces at Azovstal faced increasingly dire circumstances. Video footage seen below that was reportedly taken by a medic within the complex who is now in Russian custody highlights the horrific conditions in the city.
However, they were able to hold out long enough to deny the Russian government a tangible success ahead of the marking of the anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II on May 9. This in turn kept significant Russian and Russian-backed forces occupied and unable to be redeployed elsewhere, as noted in the U.K. Defense Ministry assessment in the Tweet below.
The Russian military is still keen to find victories where it can as Ukrainian forces continue to stymie its attempts to make significant gain in the Donbas and have actively counterattacked in the northeastern Kharkiv region. The U.K. Ministry of Defense issued a statement earlier today saying it had information that Russian Army Lt. Gen. Serhiy Kisel, previously head of the 1st Guards Tank Army, was suspended over the failure of the country's forces to capture Kharkiv. That same release said that Russian Navy Vice Adm. Igor Osipov, previously commander of the Black Sea Fleet, had also been sacked over the loss of the cruiser Moskva. A senior U.S. defense official said today that they could not confirm these reports.
In the meantime, Russian forces are advancing, at least to some degree, but continue to face significant difficulties on the battlefield. A senior defense official said today that Russia had been forced to recommit understrength units to the fighting, as well as reconsolidate other formations that have experienced significant losses, in order to keep up the pressure in the Donbas region.
Ukrainian forces have and are still putting up a very spirited defense in the Donbas. This has included the destruction of various established bridges to hamper Russian movements in the region and force the invaders to make riskier crossings across rivers like the Donets using pontoon assault bridges. The video below shows Ukrainian forces using anti-tank mines and commercial explosives to cut a railway bridge along the line between the cities of Severodonetsk and Rubizhne.
A Tweet earlier this week, seen below, from the official U.S. Army Europe and Africa account indirectly referenced the growing number of failed Russian river crossings in Ukraine.
There remain no indications that the Russian military has embarked on a broader mobilization to increase its combat capacity in Ukraine. At the same time, U.S. officials, among others, continue to stress that Russia still has considerable forces available in the country that should not be discounted out of hand. "This could be a prolonged fight," a senior U.S. defense official said today.
U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov today. "The military leaders discussed several security-related issues of concern and agreed to keep the lines of communications open," according to a Pentagon readout of the call. The U.K. Ministry of Defense had earlier questioned publicly whether Gerarismov still had Putin's confidence. This also comes nearly a week after U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held his first call in months with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Foreign military aid is still flowing to Ukraine. Today, the Pentagon announced plans to send a new $100 million military assistance package to the country that includes 18 M777 155mm towed howitzers, an equal number of vehicles to pull them along, and three AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radars, among other items.
Ukrainian troops are now reportedly training to use unspecified electronic warfare systems that the U.S. military has transferred.
The video below shows Polish-supplied T-72M1 tanks fitted with explosive reactive armor (ERA) now in Ukrainian service.
The video below appears to be one of, if not the first look at a Ukrainian servicemember employing a Polish-made Piorun shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, or man-portable air defense system (MANPADS).
Authorities in Moscow say a previously unknown laser directed energy weapon, called Zadira, is now in use in Ukraine and that Russian forces have employed it to shoot down hostile drones. There is nothing so far to independently confirm or refute these claims. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded to the news by saying that the announcement "clearly indicates the complete failure of the invasion" and that the Russian military is looking for a "wonder weapon" to turn the tide of the war.
Pictures, like those seen below, of Russian BMPT Terminator armored vehicles deployed in Ukraine continue to emerge.
The picture in the Tweet below reportedly shows a Russian servicemember with what could be a portable electronic warfare system or a communications array.
The pictures in the Tweets below show new examples of improvised armor and camouflage that Russian and Russian-backed forces are employing in Ukraine. Similar field modifications have been seen on multiple occasions in the past, underscoring the threats that Ukrainian forces armed with various shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons and drones carrying improvised munitions, among other weapons, present to invading units.
The conflict in Ukraine continues to cause significant damage to the country's infrastructure and significant resources will be necessary for reconstruction after it comes to an end. The U.K. Ministry of Defense released an assessment earlier in the week that said that 3,500 mostly residential buildings in the Chernihiv region north of the capital Kyiv had been destroyed in earlier fighting. British authorities expressed concern that similar devastation could be wrought in areas of Ukraine still seeing active combat.
The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine's capital Kyiv formally reopened yesterday, but only limited duties are being performed there still. This came on the same day that the U.S. Senate confirmed Bridget Brink, currently ambassador to Slovakia, to become ambassador to Ukraine. Brink is set to become the first formal American ambassador to Ukraine in three years. Kristina Kvien, the Chargé d'Affaires at the Embassy in Ukraine, has been acting in this role.
The U.S. State Department separately announced that it was establishing a new "Conflict Observatory" with the stated aim of being able "to capture, analyze, and make widely available evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine."
Prosecutors in Ukraine today requested a life sentence for the first Russian soldier to be put on trial for war crimes in the course of the conflict.
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