Mariupol appeared to be on the verge of collapsing to the Russians on Tuesday, as Ukraine planned to abandon the steel mill where hundreds of its forces had held out under intense bombardment for months as the last bastion of resistance in the shattered city.
The seizure of Mariupol would be the largest city conquered by Moscow's forces in the war to date. It would offer the Kremlin a much-needed win, despite the extensive destruction of the surrounding area.
Per a deal agreed by the warring parties, more than 260 Ukrainian soldiers, some of whom were severely wounded and carried out on stretchers, abandoned the remains of the Azovstal factory on Monday and surrendered to the Russian side.
Authorities in Ukraine reported working to evacuate the remaining soldiers from the vast steel factory. They refused to reveal how many remained.
While Russia referred to it as a surrender, the Ukrainians stated that the plant's garrison had accomplished its task of binding Russian forces and had received new orders.
Ukraine requires them for their survival, which is the most critical factor, stated Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.
The Ukrainians hoped that the fighters would be traded for Russian combat captives.
However, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, asserted without evidence that there were "war criminals" among the defenders and that they should not be swapped but tried.
The operation to escape the steel mill and its maze of tunnels and bunkers marked the beginning of the end of a nearly three-month siege that made Mariupol a symbol of both defiance and suffering around the world.
According to the Ukrainian side, the Russian bombardment killed more than 20,000 civilians and left the remaining inhabitants, roughly one-quarter of the southern port city's prewar population of 430,000, with no food, water, heat, or medicine.
During the siege, Russian soldiers conducted devastating airstrikes against a maternity facility and a theater where civilians had sought refuge. There may have been as many as 600 fatalities in the theater.
Gaining complete control of Mariupol would provide Russia with an uninterrupted land connection to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a crucial port.
It might also liberate Russian forces to fight elsewhere in the eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, which the Kremlin is determined to capture.
And it would give Russia a victory after suffering numerous defeats on the battlefield and diplomatic front, beginning with the failed attempt to storm the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
Sweden and Finland have recently declared plans to apply for NATO membership. In contrast, Ukraine has claimed that Moscow's forces have retreated from around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in the face of counterattacks and have suffered severe losses in an assault on a pontoon bridge in the Donbas.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, compared the Ukrainian defenses to the massively outnumbered Spartans who resisted Persian invaders in ancient Greece.
"The 83-day defense of Mariupol will be remembered as the Thermopylae of the 21st century," he tweeted.
The soldiers who left the factory were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses followed by Russian military vehicles, and transported to two towns governed by separatists backed by Moscow.
Both sides said the combatants were critically injured.
Russia's principal federal investigative agency stated that it intended to examine the troops to "identify the nationalists" and determine if they were involved in crimes against civilians.
In addition, Russia's chief prosecutor petitioned the country's highest court to label the Azov regiment, whose members have been holding out at Azovstal, as a terrorist organization. The unit is affiliated with the extreme right.
A negotiated retreat might also save lives on the Russian side, saving its soldiers from what would almost probably be a violent battle to finish off the four-square-mile-large plant's defenders.
The pullout could also benefit Moscow by diverting global attention away from the suffering in Mariupol.
Russian and Ukrainian officials announced the suspension of ceasefire talks.
In other news, the International Criminal Court chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, stated that he had dispatched 42 investigators, forensic experts, and support staff to Ukraine to investigate allegations of war crimes.
The Ukrainian government has accused Russian forces of torturing and murdering civilians.
Since the Russian invasion began, the World Health Organization has confirmed 226 attacks on health facilities in Ukraine, or about three per day on average, according to the agency's Europe director, Hans Kluge.
According to him, the targeted strikes have killed at least 75 individuals and injured 59 others.
"These attacks are never acceptable and must be thoroughly investigated," he stated.