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Putin orders troops not to storm Mariupol's last holdout

Damaged military vehicles and a Ukrainian flag are seen at the partly destroyed steel plant in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol on Monday.
Alexei Alexandrov
Damaged military vehicles and a Ukrainian flag are seen at the partly destroyed steel plant in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol on Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to control Ukraine's port city of Mariupol, but fighting continues and Ukrainian forces are holding out in a steel mill.

Putin ordered his defense minister in a televised meeting not to storm the steel plant complex, saying he would rather keep it sealed off "so that not even a fly comes through," and to avoid losing more Russian soldiers' lives.

A senior U.S. defense official said the fighting there and in the eastern Donbas region is ongoing. A flight with more military aid announced by President Biden will start arriving in Ukraine this weekend, the official said.

Ukrainian media were quick to discount this announcement, saying Ukrainian troops remain in the city and are continuing to destroy enemy equipment.

It's unclear how abandoning the effort to take over the last Ukrainian holdout in the city could be portrayed as a Russian success. But the fact that Russia appears to be switching tactics and taking a pause from repeated attacks is itself a significant development.

Civilian evacuations are stalled in Mariupol

Ukrainian soldiers and civilians remain in the steel plant, and they've been focused on trying to evacuate people from the city.

A deal struck between Russia and Ukraine for a humanitarian corridor Wednesday fell through, with only four buses able to leave despite officials' hopes of evacuating thousands of people.

Ukrainian officials claim that Russia wouldn't hold to the ceasefire, and are hoping to send in more buses Thursday.

Those who manage to flee face harrowing journeys

Russian forces are massing in the Donbas, as many civilians try to escape from Russian-held territory.

They include Sergei Protsenko, a restauranteur from Kherson, which is near the front lines of fighting in southern Ukraine. Protsenko crossed nine different Russian-held checkpoints to make it into Ukrainian-held territory and says he was told to strip down to see if he had any tattoos related to the Ukrainian military.

Now in Odesa, smoking a cigarette and looking out at the sea, he says he feels a huge sense of relief.

Hopes for a peace plan are mixed

Some Ukrainian officials believe there's an upside in talking to the Russian government on specific issues, like humanitarian corridors and prisoner-of-war exchanges.

But talks for a broader agreement that could end the war don't look promising at this moment.

And it was after the most recent round of peace talks that Russia withdrew from the areas around Kyiv, leaving evidence of atrocities in places like Bucha and prompting a dramatic shift in public opinion nearly overnight.

Even many people inclined against violence said there could be no negotiations with the Russian government as photos emerged of mass graves and civilians killed and bound in the streets.

Looking ahead, any serious negotiations may not take place until the results of the next Russian offensive are clear.

The digital version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

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Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.