Russia’s brutal 82-day siege of Mariupol was possibly close to an end on Tuesday, May 17, with at least some of the battered defenders surrendering to their opponents, and Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) commander declaring their mission successful and complete. It was not clear if or when all the fighters inside the plant would lay down their arms, or on what terms.
Denys Prokopenko, the commander of the Azov special regiment, in a May 16 statement said that Ukrainian fighters holding out in the Azovstal steel mill have “fulfilled their orders” to hold down and destroy Russian Federation (RF) forces for as long as possible and that now UAF high command has instructed him to save as many lives of his troops as possible. He called on the fighters under his command to follow new orders received from Kyiv “to save as many lives as possible”.
A statement from Ukraine’s Army General Staff (AGS) early on May 17 echoed Prokopenko’s declaration, praising Azov and other formations left in the steel works for a job well done and now, in the high army command’s view, fully complete.
A hodge-podge force of men and women from the National Guard Azov Regiment, the 36th Marine Brigade, Ukraine’s Border Troops Command, and paramilitary National Police took up positions for a last stand in the steel mill in late April and had defied repeated RF appeals for surrender since then.
Weeks of vicious RF bombardment using artillery, bombers, and warships leveled the surface of the plant but, according to news reports, had relatively little effect on bunkers and bomb shelters built during the Soviet era to prove the plant against nuclear strikes.
Ukrainian independent and RF state-controlled media on Tuesday morning reported a tense but quiet situation around the Azovstal mill. A reported 264 Ukrainian fighters, 53 seriously injured, surrendered and were evacuated in buses overnight.
Anna Malyar, a Ukraine Defense Ministry spokeswoman, in a May 17 statement said more defenders were still in defensive positions inside the steel factory premises. Over the course of the siege, some Avovstal defenders including particularly members of the Azov Regiment and the Marine Brigade have stated they will fight to the death. Talks were in progress “to save the lives” of all Ukrainians still inside the plant, Malyar said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a late May 16 statement called on the media and the public to be patient and show restraint during the negotiation process.
Along the line of contact, Ukrainian official statements and independent media reported limited UAF progress in two key sectors, and an effective halt to Russian Federation advances at all locations.
Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk regional defense command, in a May 17 statement said that RF forces were retreating from the outskirts of the town Severodonetsk under heavy UAF artillery fire, and had lost the outlying villages Hirsky and Sirotino to advancing UAF units. If confirmed the two villages’ capture would mark the first liberation of RF-captured villages by the UAF, in the critical Severodonetsk sector, in more than a month. Haidai claimed RF units suffered heavy casualties as they retreated.
In the north-eastern Kharkiv sector, the RF-controlled Readovka news platform confirmed Ukrainian reports from Sunday and Monday that advancing UAF units reached the Russian border near the village Ternivka. According to the pro-Kremlin source, leading UAF patrols already were on the outskirts of the town Vovchansk, an important RF supply, and logistics hub also adjacent to the RF border, but further to the east.
Ukrainian social media said that UAF patrols – according to news reports light infantry made up of a mix of Territorial Defense units and privately-armed civilian volunteers – had not only taken full control of Vovchansk, but over the weekend had crossed the Siviersky Donets river further south, near the town Stary Saltiv, notwithstanding the fact RF forces demolished the three remaining bridges over the river on Friday.
Readovka said UAF units had “forced a crossing” to the east side of the river with the goal of cutting RF supply lines running south from Vovchansk, but did not say specifically where or how the Ukrainians got across the river.
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