A senior US defense official said the Pentagon does not assess that the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has fallen to Russia, countering claims by President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.
“We do not assess that it is fallen to the Russians. The Ukrainians are still there, still resisting,” a senior US defense official said Thursday. “Mariupol still continues to fall victim to continued airstrikes from the Russians.”
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The official said that roughly 1,670 Russian missiles have been levied at Ukrainian targets since the war began eight weeks ago, and the majority of missile launches are now focused throughout the Donbas region and in Mariupol.
Mariupol is a strategically important port city, not only because of its access to the Sea of Azov and the direct coast-to-coast access it would grant Russia – but because of Moscow’s strategy for eastern Ukraine.
Defense officials have said that Russia is planning to pinch the Luhansk and Donetsk region by invading from the north through Kharkiv and up from the south through Mariupol.
But despite weeks of intense shelling, Russia has been unable to completely besiege the southern city.
Putin claimed victory over Mariupol Thursday despite the fact that thousands of resistance fighters remain in the city holed up in tunnels deep under the Azovstal steel plant.
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Putin claimed that it would not be necessary to root out the resistance forces bunkered in and instead directed his troops to “block this industrial zone in such a way that even a fly could not fly through.”
The senior US defense official said Thursday that the US is doing what it can to help Ukrainians in Mariupol short of having boots on the ground.
“We do provide the Ukrainians, every day, intelligence and information that we believe will be helpful for them, their ability to fight the Russians as well as to improve their defensive capabilities,” the official said.
The US approved another $ 800 million in security assistance Thursday that the senior defense official said was “strategically” planned with Ukrainian officials to help them with the fight in the Donbas.
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Despite continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, US officials have warned they do not believe Russia has actually begun its full assault in the area and is still conducting “shaping operations.”
Roughly 85 Russian battalion tactical groups are believed to have entered eastern Ukraine.