Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the Ukrainian city of Mariupol had been “liberated” after nearly two months of fighting, but U.S. President Joe Biden said this claim was “questionable” as he announced another $1.3 billion in U.S. aid for Ukraine.
Biden said that, despite Putin’s claim on April 21, “There is no evidence yet that Mariupol is completely fallen.”
Speaking at the White House, Biden said a new package of $800 million in military aid will go “directly to the front lines of defending freedom” to support brave Ukrainian forces and civilians who are fighting the Russian invasion in the region.
“Russia has launched and refocused their campaign to seize new territory in eastern Ukraine and we are in a critical window now, of time where they’re going to set the stage for the next phase of this war,” Biden said, adding that the United States and allies are “moving as fast as possible” to provide Ukraine with the equipment and weapons it needs.
The new package will be tailored to support the intensified fighting in the Donbas region, Biden said.
Biden also announced that the United States will ban Russian-affiliated ships from U.S. ports, joining Canada and European countries, and announced $500 million in direct economic assistance to Ukraine for government salaries, pensions, and other programs.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed his gratitude but said his country needed more — up to $7 billion each month to make up for economic losses, in addition to weapons and money for the continuing war.
With tens of thousands of buildings damaged and key infrastructure in ruins, “we will need hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild,” Zelenskiy said in a virtual address to a meeting of World Bank and International Monetary Fund leaders in Washington.
Zelenskiy said Russian forces intended to destroy “all objects in Ukraine that can serve as an economic base for life. That includes railroad stations, food warehouses, oil, refineries.”
Amid the pledges of support and appeals for more aid, the fate of Mariupol hung in the balance, with the city’s Ukrainian defenders trapped in the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.
Russian troops are continuing attempts to storm the plant in the besieged port city despite Putin’s order to stop such efforts, Ukrainian authorities say.
The Ukrainian military’s General Staff said on Facebook on April 21 that Russia was also continuing its air strikes near the port of Mariupol.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said late on April 21 that while the Russians “have devoted a lot of force a lot of firepower” to taking Mariupol the United States still sees it as contested.
“Our assessment here at the Pentagon is that the Ukrainians are still fighting for it,” Kirby said on CNN. He added that the Pentagon’s view was that the Russian forces “still have not achieved any territorial gains in the Donbas.”
Earlier in the day, Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to cancel plans to storm the steel plant and instead blockade it in order to protect the lives of Russian soldiers.
During a televised meeting on April 21, Shoigu told Putin that “all of Mariupol is under the control of the Russian Army” and Moscow-backed separatists, while the Azovstal plant “is securely sealed off” after weeks of heavy bombardment and intense fighting throughout the city, where tens of thousands of civilians are trapped amid what aid workers have called “apocalyptic” conditions.
Shoigu told Putin that more than 2,000 Ukrainian fighters were still holed up in the vast plant, which has a large underground component to it, and claimed that Russian forces only needed several days to “complete” the takeover of the compound.
Putin said during the meeting it would be “impractical” to storm the huge industrial complex as there was “no need to climb into those catacombs and crawl underground beneath those industrial facilities.”
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the Ukrainian soldiers were not willing to surrender.
“They are willing to leave only with weapons in their hands and continue defending our homeland, our Ukraine,” Boychenko said in an interview with Reuters.
Shoigu said that more than 142,000 civilians were evacuated from the Sea of Azov port through humanitarian corridors — a claim contradicted by Ukrainian officials, who said that only a small number of refugees had been allowed to leave the city since the start of the war on February 24.
Earlier on April 21, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said only four buses carrying evacuees left Mariupol on April 20 instead of a planned 90 buses expected to transport 6,000 people due to the Russian forces’ “disorganization and negligence.”
She said in a statement on Telegram that the evacuation of women, children, and the elderly would continue on April 21.
Meanwhile, Russian troops continued their all-out offensive in eastern Ukraine as Kyiv proposed to hold a “special round” of negotiations in Mariupol.
A British military update on April 21 said that Russian forces are advancing from staging areas in the Donbas toward the city of Kramatorsk, which continues to be hit by rocket fire.
“High levels of Russian air activity continue as it seeks to provide close air support to its offensive in eastern Ukraine, and to suppress and destroy Ukrainian air defense capabilities,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense tweeted in a regular bulletin.
After failing to seize Kyiv and other large and strategic cities in its nearly eight-week war, Moscow now says its aim is to capture the full provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been the focus of the separatists since 2014.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine needed more heavy weapons to defend itself and asked the West to impose further sanctions.
Speaking in a video address to the Portuguese parliament on April 21, he accused the Russian Army of committing many atrocities in Ukraine, including in Mariupol, and asked Portugal to support a global embargo on Russian oil.
Satellite imagery from near Mariupol shows a mass grave site that has expanded in recent weeks to contain more than 200 new graves, a private U.S. company said.
Maxar Technologies said a review of images from mid-March through mid-April indicates the expansion began March 23 and March 26. The site lies adjacent to an existing cemetery in the village of Manhush, 20 kilometers west of Mariupol, Maxar said.
Boychenko said the images, which could not be independently verified, were proof Russians were burying bodies to try to “hide their war crimes.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called on Russia to respect international humanitarian law and allow civilians to leave Mariupol.
“In Mariupol, the situation is only getting worse. Tens of thousands of civilians are trapped. I once again call on Russia to respect international humanitarian law, to allow residents to leave the city, to allow humanitarian aid to enter,” Macron said on Twitter.