KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine hailed the defenders of the strategic city of Mariupol on Tuesday as heroes who changed the course of the war with Russia by keeping Russian forces at bay for 82 days of siege and bombardment.
More than 250 fighters, some of them seriously wounded, have been evacuated after spending weeks in bunkers and tunnels below the sprawling Azovstal steel works in Mariupol where they had little food, water, medicine or other supplies.
Their defiance meant Russia could not free up troops to fight on other fronts, a factor which Kyiv said had helped Ukrainian forces thwart Russian advances elsewhere.
“Because Mariupol drew in the Russian Federation’s forces for 82 days, the operation to seize the east and south (of Ukraine) was held up. It changed the course of the war,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said.
Full control of Mariupol will give Russia command of an overland route linking the Crimea peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, with mainland Russia and areas of eastern Ukraine that are held by pro-Russia separatists.
But while Russian forces have been tied up attacking Mariupol, their military campaign has faltered elsewhere.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described Mariupol’s defenders as heroes who must be kept alive. Ukraine’s military said they were “heroes of our time.”
“They are forever in history,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces wrote on Facebook, adding that the defence of Azovstal and Mariupol had prevented Russia transferring about 20,000 personnel to fight in other areas.
“We gained critically needed time to build up our reserves, regroup our forces and get help from our partners.”
Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mariupol. The city is now an urban wasteland and its mayor has likened it to a “medieval ghetto”.
The final defence of Mariupol was led by the Azov Regiment, which Russia has portrayed as a band of Russia-hating neo-Nazis. Some fighters remained in the steel plant on Tuesday.
Kyiv says the Azov militia has been folded into Ukraine’s National Guard – a military wing of the interior ministry – and that it has been reformed away from its radical nationalist origins and has nothing to do with politics.
Underlining the different perceptions of the Mariupol fighters in Russia and Ukraine, one Russian lawmaker called on Tuesday for the evacuated combatants to receive the death penalty.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Writing by Alexander Winning and Timothy Heritage, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)