The fall of Mariupol, the site of a merciless, seven-week-old siege that has reduced much of the city to a smoking ruin, would be Moscow’s biggest victory of the war yet and free up troops to take part in a potentially climactic battle for control of Ukraine’s industrial east.
As its missiles and rockets slammed into other parts of the country, Russia estimated 2,500 Ukrainian troops and about 400 foreign mercenaries were dug in at the hulking Azovstal steel mill, which covers more than 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) and is laced with tunnels.
Moscow gave the defenders a midday deadline to surrender, saying those who laid down their arms were “guaranteed to keep their lives”. The Ukrainians rejected it, just as they did with previous ultimatums.
“All those who will continue resistance will be destroyed,” Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, said in announcing the latest ultimatum. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar described Mariupol as a “shield defending Ukraine” as Russian troops prepare for battle in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists already control some territory.
Russian forces, meanwhile, carried out aerial attacks near Kyiv and elsewhere in an apparent effort to weaken Ukraine’s military capacity ahead of the anticipated assault. Russia said Sunday that it had attacked an ammunition plant near Kyiv overnight with precision-guided missiles, the third such strike in as many days. Explosions were also reported overnight in Kramatorsk, the eastern city where rockets earlier this month killed at least 57 people at a train station crowded with civilians trying to evacuate ahead of the Russian offensive.