The soldiers of the garrison stationed in Azovstal, of which more than 260 have already been evacuated on Monday, have “fulfilled their combat mission”, welcomed the staff of the Ukrainian army in a press release, and order was given to their commanders to “save the lives” of those left behind.
“Unfortunately, today Ukraine cannot unblock Azovstal by military means,” the Ukrainian defense ministry said on Telegram.
The Ukrainian authorities said last week that more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers – including 600 wounded – were in this industrial complex, a real “city within a city” with its kilometers of underground galleries.
They had entrenched themselves there after suffering the siege of Mariupol for more than a month, attacked by the Russian army at the start of the war, which began on February 24, and is now totally devastated.
This city, on the shores of the Sea of Azov, is strategically located between the Crimea annexed by Moscow in 2014 and the mining region of Donbass (eastern Ukraine), where there are two pro-Russian separatist “republics” and where Russia is currently stepping up its offensive.
Its total capture by the Russian forces, which now seems inevitable after the order given to the last fighters of Azovstal, would allow the latter to facilitate the junction between the Crimea and the Donbass.
– “Exchange procedure” –
Some “53 seriously injured were evacuated from Azovstal to Novoazovsk for medical assistance and 211 others were transported to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar announced Monday evening in a video.
These two localities are located in territory controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, but the fighters were to be repatriated to territory controlled by Ukraine “as part of an exchange procedure”, a she clarified.
The Ukrainian general staff confirmed the evacuation of these 264 soldiers and indicated on the night of Monday to Tuesday that “the rescue operation of the defenders of Ukraine stranded” on the Azovstal site “continues”, without specifying their number.
Their fierce resistance notably prevented the rapid capture by the Russian army of the large Ukrainian city of Zaporijjia, 200 km to the west, according to the general staff.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on Monday that it had established a ceasefire around Azovstal, to allow the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian soldiers.
– “Russian soldiers expelled” –
In eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s priority objective, the Russian army “continues to carry out offensive operations” and “concentrates its main efforts on the direction of Donetsk”, the general staff indicated on Tuesday morning in a statement.
The day before, “at least 10 people were killed” in Russian bombings in Severodonetsk, a city that has become important for Ukrainians since Moscow-backed separatist forces seized part of the Donbass in 2014, announced on Monday the regional governor.
This city is almost surrounded by the forces of Moscow.
In a previous message on Monday, Serguiï Gaïdaï had reported artillery strikes on Severodonetsk and its twin city of Lysychank, having caused fires in residential areas. “Severodonetsk suffered very powerful strikes,” he added, accompanying his message with photographs of the destruction.
Despite calls from the Ukrainian authorities to evacuate Lyssytchansk, which is separated from Severodonetsk only by a river, the Siversky Donets, and which is regularly bombed, more than 20,000 civilians – against 100,000 inhabitants before the war – remained, according to volunteers distributing aid in the area.
Also in this area, near Sirotyne, “the enemy suffered losses during the fighting and retreated”, however, noted the Ukrainian general staff on Tuesday, adding that a Russian strike destroyed private buildings and hit civil infrastructure in the Odessa region (southwest).
In the northeast, however, the Ukrainians have regained control of part of the border in the Kharkiv region, according to kyiv.
Posting a video on its Facebook account showing Ukrainian soldiers in front of a border post painted in the colors of Ukraine, yellow and blue, the Ministry of Defense welcomed Monday that its forces had “expelled the Russians”.
The Russians bombed for weeks on northern and eastern districts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, from localities recently taken over by the Ukrainians.
The Ukrainian authorities now expect that the disengaged units from the Kharkiv region will reinforce the Russian troops in the Donbass, where they are progressing only laboriously, according to Oleksiï Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency.
– “Answer” –
Another front for Moscow: the probable enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Finland and Sweden, two countries that the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed to give up decades of no – military alignment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that these memberships did not constitute “an immediate threat”. But, he continued, “the deployment of military infrastructure on the territories of these countries will of course lead to a response”.
Russia had in particular explained its attack in Ukraine by the rapprochement of its western neighbor with NATO, believing that this constituted an “existential” threat to its security.
With Finland’s probable entry into NATO, Russia will share 1,300 km of additional land borders with the Atlantic Alliance.
Monday evening, France assured that it “would stand alongside” the two countries in the event of aggression, while London called for them to be integrated into NATO “as soon as possible”.
In Brussels, the EU for its part tried on Monday to agree on a halt to purchases of Russian oil, refused by Hungary, arguing the financial burden that such a measure would weigh on it.
“The whole Union is unfortunately taken hostage by a Member State which cannot help us find a consensus”, lamented the head of Lithuanian diplomacy, Gabrielius Landsbergis.
For the head of Hungarian diplomacy, Peter Szijjarto, “Hungarians are legitimately waiting for a proposal for a solution to finance investments (new infrastructures) and compensate for price increases, an overall cost of around 15-18 billion euro”.
At the end of the meeting, the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell conceded that finalizing the 6th package of sanctions “will take time”. An extraordinary European summit is scheduled for May 30 and 31.