President Putin has said he wants a steelworks in Mariupol that is the last stronghold of resistance in the besieged southeastern city to be blockaded so that “a fly cannot pass through”.
In a televised meeting at the Kremlin, he told Sergei Shoigu, his defence minister, to cancel an attack on the Azovstal plant.
“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary,” Putin said.
“I order you to cancel it.”
The Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov claimed earlier that Russian forces will seize full control of the key port city today after Ukrainian defenders warned they would be unable to “hold out for much longer”.
The city has been a key target for Russia since the war in Ukraine began almost two months ago.
An estimated 1,000 civilians have been sheltering from shelling and missile attacks at the steelworks.
Putin said he had decided not to storm the plant to protect the lives of Russian soldiers.
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” he told Shoigu.
“Block off this industrial area so that a fly cannot pass through.”
Other key developments:
• US President Joe Biden convened military leaders after planning more weapons assistance to Ukraine
• The food security crisis caused by the war could last into next year, the World Bank warned
• Boris Johnson said peace talks with Russia are likely to fail and compared talks with Putin to negotiating with a crocodile
• Wimbledon barred all Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s tennis championships
Ukraine war: Why is Russia focusing on the east?
Putin also called on the remaining Ukrainian fighters in Azovstal to give themselves up, saying Russia would treat them with respect and provide medical assistance.
After days of holding out against near-constant attacks, Ukrainian Marine commander Serhiy Volny warned that fighters at the plant may not be able to “hold out for much longer”.
Speaking to Sky News, he said troops were “outnumbered 10 to one” and that more than 500 fighters need medical attention.
“The enemy units are dozens of times larger than ours, they have dominance in the air, in artillery, in ground troops, in equipment and in tanks,” he said.
Kadyrov, the head of the Russian republic of Chechnya, whose forces have been fighting in Ukraine, insisted Mariupol would fall today.
“Before lunchtime, or after lunch, Azovstal will be completely under the control of the forces of the Russian Federation,” he said.
Russia tests missile capable of evading ‘any defence system’
The fall of the city would mark Moscow’s biggest victory of the war so far.
Ukraine offers to swap prisoners of war
On Wednesday, the situation in Mariupol became so desperate that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, proposed swapping Russian prisoners of war for a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to leave the city safely.
Ukraine is ready for a “special round of negotiations” with no conditions “to save our guys, Azov [battalion], military, civilians, children, the living and the wounded”, Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said.
Four evacuation buses carrying civilians from Mariupol left the city on Wednesday.
More than five million people have fled the country since war broke out, but it is believed that tens of thousands are still trapped inside Mariupol with little food, water or access to medical supplies.
Russia successfully tests new missile
Russia is continuing its new offensive to take control of the eastern part of the country, what is known as the Donbas region.
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Missiles and artillery struck 1,001 military targets in Ukraine overnight, including 162 firing positions, the country’s Ministry of Defence said on Thursday.
The mayor of Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, has said it has come under intense bombardment.
Russian forces and Russian-backed separatists have also taken full control of the town of Kreminna in eastern Ukraine.
The governor of Luhansk has claimed Russian forces now control 80% of his region.
Serhiy Haidai said Kremlin troops are now threatening the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna after taking control of Kreminna.
Only a miracle could stop fall of Mariupol
By Deborah Haynes, security and defence editor
A decision by Vladimir Putin to cancel plans to storm the last stronghold of resistance in Mariupol means the Ukrainian city has not completely fallen to Russia but – short of a miracle – that must only be a matter of time.
The Russian president has instead ordered that a blockade be maintained around a sprawling steelworks, where thousands of Ukrainian fighters and hundreds of civilians are holed up, so that not even a fly can escape.
It signals a cruel final stand for Ukrainian defenders who have withstood almost two months of sustained bombardments, though it does rob – or at least delay – the Kremlin from being able to declare the strategic port city is fully under Russian control.
Ukraine’s government is trying to secure safe passage for its people but there is no sign they can convince Russia to let them escape.
The seemingly inevitable fall of Mariupol would mark the most significant capture of a Ukrainian city since the invasion began, with Russian forces thought to be seeking to secure successes ahead of annual Victory Day on 9 May, commemorating the end of the Second World War.
However, the seizure of the city, which once had a population of almost half a million, has come at a devastating cost for its residents. More than 20,000 civilians have been killed, many more wounded and hundreds of thousands have fled.
Mariupol itself has been all but flattened.
Some 90 per cent of homes and buildings have been damaged by Russian strikes, with 40 per cent of buildings destroyed.
Before Russia’s invasion, the Kyiv government controlled 60% of the Luhansk region – one of two areas that make up the Donbas.
“The occupiers control only parts of these cities, unable to break through to the centres,” Mr Haidai said on the messaging app Telegram.
Analysts have said the offensive in the east could become a war of attrition as Russia faces Ukraine’s most experienced troops, who have fought pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas for eight years.
President Putin also claimed his country has successfully tested a Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile.
He said the test launch should “provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten” Russia.