Putin Ramps Up Costly Mariupol Offensive for 'Symbolic' May 9 Victory: U.K.

Russia is ramping up its offensive in Mariupol as part of efforts to take the port city and the Azovstal steel plant before it marks Victory Day on May 9, the British Ministry of Defence said on Friday.

Russian forces have renewed their ground assault on the Azovstal steel plant for a second day, despite Russian statements claiming they would seek only to seal it off, the ministry said in its daily intelligence update on Twitter.

The U.K. said Russia's renewed effort to secure the sprawling steel factory and complete the capture of Mariupol is likely linked to the upcoming May 9 Victory Day commemorations and Russian President Vladimir Putin's "desire to have a symbolic success in Ukraine."

Victory Day is a hugely important day for the Kremlin, commemorating the end of World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War.

The Azovstal steel works in the shattered city of Mariupol has seen intense fighting in recent weeks, and some 200 civilians are believed to be trapped inside, including 20 children. The plant's defenses were breached earlier this week by Russian troops.

Strategic Port City

Russian forces intensified attacks on the city after failing to capture Kyiv in the early weeks of Putin's invasion. Mariupol is a strategic port city on the Azov Sea that would provide a land corridor to Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

"This effort has come at personnel, equipment and munitions cost to Russia. Whilst Ukrainian resistance continues in Azovstal, Russian losses will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbas," the British military said.

Roughly 2,000 Ukrainian forces are believed to be stationed at the plant, defending against the Russian attacks.

A Ukrainian civilian who was evacuated on Sunday described the conditions in the steel plant. She said food, drinking water and ammunition were running low.

"We didn't see the sun for so long," Natalia Usmanova, 37, told reporters in Bezimenne. "I feared that the bunker would not withstand it—I had terrible fear."

"You just can't imagine what we have been through—the terror," Usmanova added. "I lived there, worked there all my life, but what we saw there was just terrible."

On Friday morning, a third United Nations operation was being carried out to evacuate Ukrainian civilians from the plant

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk also said evacuations would begin in Mariupol at noon on Friday.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba brushed off Kremlin claims that Mariupol was completely under Russian control.

"Azovstal, the stronghold, the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol still holds," he said.

The latest intelligence update comes amid growing speculation that Putin will use Russia's May 9 Victory Day celebrations to declare all-out war on Ukraine, although the Kremlin has described the allegations as "nonsense."

Petro Andriushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, has also claimed that Russian forces in Mariupol are planning to dress up Ukrainian "prisoners of war" in military uniforms as part of a "grotesque" parade that will coincide with the Victory Day parade in Moscow.

Newsweek has been unable to independently verify the claims, and has contacted the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.

Russian soldiers in Mariupol, Ukraine
Russian soldiers walking along a street in Mariupol on April 12, 2022. Russia is intensifying a campaign to take the strategic port city, part of an anticipated massive onslaught across eastern Ukraine. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images