Putin claims a win in Mariupol. What does that mean in a war in Ukraine that Russia is losing?

President Vladimir Putin desperately needs a success before Russia's May 9 Victory Day celebration.

  • Russia was hoping to completely capture Mariupol but Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel plant.
  • Mariupol’s residents have endured some of the worst atrocities committed by the Russians.

After reducing Ukraine’s eastern port city of Mariupol to rubble, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called the military campaign there a success, something he desperately needs as the war grinds into its third month.

It's anything but.

Russia stopped short of routing hundreds of Ukrainian fighters from the strategic city’s giant steel plant. Ukraine and President Joe Biden rejected Putin’s claim of victory.

What is clear is that Mariupol’s residents have endured some of the worst atrocities committed by the Russians even as Russia lost about a quarter of its combat forces in Ukraine – troops, aircraft, tanks, ships and other equipment – since the war began Feb. 24.

Though Putin was forced to retreat from his goal of taking Kyiv, he’s pushing for territorial gains in eastern Ukraine. Military victories could give him the stronger hand he needs to wrest concessions in a peace negotiation, or at least allow him to save face at home.

RUSSIA ADVANCES IN MARIUPOL:Ukraine forces fight to keep Mariupol; Russians likely exposed to radiation at Chernobyl: April 20 recap

That’s particularly important leading up to Victory Day on May 9, Russians' annual celebration of their defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

“They haven’t been able to achieve what they wanted to and now are just trying to claim any little bit of progress or an advance as a strategic success,” said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think it shows that they’re trying to look for a way out of this.”

Putin wanted to take control of Ukraine, returning the former Soviet Republic to Russia’s sphere of influence to bolster its stature and security.

After the Russian military failed in the face of fierce resistance to conquer Kyiv, Putin shifted the focus to eastern Ukraine, including areas that have been contested by Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

“We're looking at the start of a new offensive in the Donbas region … where the goal will be to take all of the territory,” said Angela Stent, a senior adviser to the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and author of “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest.”

Russia hoped to completely capture Mariupol, but hundreds of Ukrainian fighters holed up in the tunnels and bunkers of the city’s steel plant, refusing to surrender.

“It’s being razed to the ground,” Stent said of the city, yet “there’s still resistance there.”

Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Russia knows it can’t capture the plant.

“They have understood this,” Arestovich said. “They suffered huge losses there.”

Even without the plant, the Russians control what’s left of the rest of the city.

“They now control the smoking ruins of what used to be a flourishing city. In that sense, it's a success,” said Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, said of Putin’s claim that Russia “liberated” Mariupol. “In any normal human sense, and in the sense of the objectives that Putin had initially outlined, it's not. But he’s redefining what is success.”

Biden called Putin’s claim that he controls Mariupol “questionable.”

“There is no evidence yet that Mariupol has completely fallen,” Biden said afterannouncing a new round of military aid to Ukraine, raising the total U.S. assistance to about $3.4 billion since Putin invaded Ukraine.

'IT SIMPLY DOES NOT EXIST ANYMORE':A visual representation of the destruction of Mariupol

“We're in a critical window now of time where they're going to set the stage for the next phase of this war,” Biden said.

The Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol has tied up about 11 Russian battalion tactical groups, each of which has 800 to 1,000 troops. The fall of Mariupol would free up those Russian forces to join the fight in the Donbas region.

The Russians appear intent on linking their forces from southern Ukraine, in coastal areas such as Mariupol, with those fighting almost due north, a senior Defense Department official said Thursday.

The Russian strategy appears to be aimed at cutting off Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region and destroying them, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe intelligence assessments. Russia had about 85 battalions in Ukraine, most of them focused in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Kagan said Putin’s military officers probably convinced him that rather than try to clear the steel plant in Mariupol, it was better to use the Russian forces to try to take more territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions before May 9, the proudest day on the Russian calendar.

Victory Day includes a huge parade in Red Square and has become practically a religious ceremony, said Garret Martin, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations at American University.

“I think it's quite clear that he is very much concerned about his internal standing,” Martin said of Putin. “He wants to be seen as having fulfilled certain objectives and being successful.”

FACT CHECK: US general refutes rumor that Russian forces captured him in Mariupol

When Putin launched the war in February, his stated justification was recognizing the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

If Russia can take more territory there, Putin could try to sell that as a victory to the Russian people.

“Putin has pretty much boxed himself into a corner,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a William Perry Fellow at Stanford University. “He needs to have something that he can call a win.”

Putin needs to be able to negotiate from a position of strength if he wants to end the war through a settlement with Ukraine.

“At a certain point, he will decide that he's got enough of the east to satisfy his honor,” Kagan said. “And then he will offer a cease-fire and try to get pressure brought on the Ukrainians to accept the cease-fire that freezes the lines with Russia in control of much more of Ukraine than it was at the start of the war.”

The death, destruction and atrocities committed in Bucha, Mariupol and elsewhere in the country make it harder for Ukraine to consider a negotiated end to fighting, even if Ukraine were willing to give up territory – which Zelenskyy said he’s not.

VIDEO:Mariupol refugee recounts hardship, devastation

“After Bucha, it became particularly difficult to continue talking with the Russians,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe determined this month that Russia broke international humanitarian law by targeting civilians. That includes ordering attacks on a maternity hospital and theater in Mariupol where hundreds of civilians sheltered. Those who ordered or executed the attack on the theater committed a war crime, according to the Vienna-based security body.

The report cites Mariupol as an “extreme case” of a siege that heavily affects the civilian population. Most residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed by Russian shelling. Residents are trapped with no heat and little food and water.

“These past weeks have seen a terrible human cost of Putin’s ambition for conquest and control,” Biden said.

Putin’s aims, Bergmann said, are to gain territory in Donbas to save face by meeting an initial objective – as well as to do as much damage to the Ukrainian military as possible.

It’s not clear whether Putin can win enough territory to achieve its goal, Bergmann said. Plus, Russia will sustain massive battlefield losses, is isolated globally and its economy has been devastated.

“So no matter what,” Bergmann said, “I think this is a strategic defeat for Vladimir Putin.”

Contributing:  Associated Press