Efforts were underway Tuesday to evacuate the last of the Ukrainian forces who spent weeks holed-up inside the Azovstal steel plant in the ruined port city of Mariupol. Ukrainian officials said the fighters had “completed their mission” and there was no way the country’s forces could free the plant from Russia’s grasp by military means.
Russia called it a surrender, and there was no doubt that Moscow and its proxy forces in Ukraine were in full control of the strategic southern port city — even if much of it has been razed to the ground.
CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports the fighters held out for 82 days under brutal conditions in the steelworks, becoming a collective symbol of Ukraine’s resistance and Russia’s merciless tactics in the war. But overnight, dozens of buses were seen leaving the plant carrying the bedraggled forces away, many in urgent need of medical care.
They were taken under escort by pro-Russian forces to territory held by those rebels, with Ukraine hoping for a prisoner exchange while rescue attempts continued for those still underground.
The Ukrainian military avoided using the term “surrender” to describe the effort to pull out of the steel plant, but Russia declared it just that.
“Over the past 24 hours, 265 militants laid down their arms and surrendered, including 51 heavily wounded,” the Russian Ministry of Defense announced in a briefing on Tuesday, saying those in need of medical care were transferred to a hospital in the pro-Russian rebel-held town of Novoazovsk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the evacuation to separatist-controlled territory was done to save the lives of the fighters who endured weeks of Russian assaults in the maze of underground passages below the hulking Azovstal steelworks.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It’s our principle,” he said. An unknown number of fighters stayed behind, but reports by local media outlets suggested more were preparing to accept evacuation into pro-Russian territory.
“The work to bring the guys home continues, and it requires delicacy and time,” Zelenskyy said.
“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained critically important time to form reserves and regroup forces and receive help from partners,” Deputy Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said. “They fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.”
The steel mill’s defenders got out as Moscow suffered another diplomatic setback in its war with Ukraine, with Sweden and Finland deciding to seek NATO membership. And Ukraine made a symbolic gain as its forces reportedly pushed Russian troops back to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region.
Fighting rages in Donbas, Lviv hit again
Still, Russian forces pounded targets in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas, and the death toll, already many thousands, kept climbing with the war set to enter its 12th week on Wednesday.
The eastern city of Sievierdonetsk in Donbas came under heavy shelling that killed at least 10 people, said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region. In the Donetsk region, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Facebook that nine civilians were killed in shelling.
The western Ukrainian city of Lviv was rocked by loud explosions early Tuesday. Witnesses counted at least eight blasts accompanied by distant booms, and the smell of burning was apparent some time later. An Associated Press team in Lviv, which was under an overnight curfew, said the sky west of the city was lit up by an orange glow.
Russia pushed back from Kharkiv
But Ukrainian troops also advanced as Russian forces pulled back from around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in recent days. Zelenskyy thanked the soldiers who reportedly pushed them all the way to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region.
Video showed Ukrainian soldiers carrying a post that resembled a Ukrainian blue-and-yellow-striped border marker. Then they placed it on the ground while a dozen of the soldiers posed next to it, including one with belts of bullets draped over a shoulder.
“I’m very grateful to you, on behalf of all Ukrainians, on my behalf and on behalf of my family,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. “I’m very grateful to all the fighters like you.”
The Ukrainian border service said the video showing the soldiers was from the border “in the Kharkiv region,” but would not elaborate, citing security reasons. It was not immediately possible to verify the exact location.
CBS News’ Patta and her team visited the town of Derhachi on Tuesday, which is about as close as the Russian ground forces got to Kharkiv — less than a mile away from Ukraine’s second city.
Despite their retreat, they can still inflict terrible damage. Mayor Vyacheslav Zadorenko told CBS News that a cultural center used as a distribution hub for humanitarian aid was hit twice in the past week alone. The situation remains critical in four nearby villages still under Russian control.
“They are ‘liberating us from the Nazis,” the mayor told Patta, mocking Vladimir Putin’s excuse for the war in Ukraine, “but in reality, they are ‘liberating’ us from the peaceful life we used to have.”
That peace was still very much under threat on Tuesday. Patta and her team heard shelling throughout the morning. Proof that while Russia’s forces may have been pushed back, it clearly wasn’t far enough.
Russia has been plagued by setbacks in the war, most glaringly in its failure early on to take the capital of Kyiv. Much of the fighting has shifted to the Donbas but also has turned into a slog, with both sides fighting village-by-village.
Finland and Sweden’s NATO bid
Away from the battlefield, Sweden’s decision to seek NATO membership followed a similar decision by neighboring Finland in a historic shift for the counties, which were non-aligned for generations.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the application period and urged her fellow citizens to brace themselves.
“Russia has said that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO,” she said. “We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us.”
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO member, ratcheted up his objection to their joining. He accused the countries of failing to take a “clear” stance against Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara considers terrorists, and of imposing military sanctions on Turkey.
He said Swedish and Finnish officials who are expected in Turkey next week should not bother to come if they intend to try to convince Turkey of dropping its objection.
“How can we trust them?” Erdogan asked at a joint news conference with the visiting Algerian president.
All 30 current NATO members must agree to let the Nordic neighbors join.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow “does not have a problem” with Sweden or Finland as they apply for NATO membership, but that “the expansion of military infrastructure onto this territory will of course give rise to our reaction in response.”
Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24 in what he said was an effort to check NATO’s expansion but has seen that strategy backfire. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the membership process for both could be quick.
Europe is also working to choke off funding for the Kremlin’s war by reducing the billions of dollars it spends on imports of Russian energy. A proposed EU embargo faces opposition from some countries dependent on Russian imports, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bulgaria also has reservations.