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President Vladimir Putin of Russia claimed victory in Mariupol Thursday despite persistent fighting there, publicly calling off an assault on the final Ukrainian stronghold in the devastated city in a stark display of the Kremlin’s desire to present a success to the Russian public.

In a choreographed meeting shown on Russian television, Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu not to storm the sprawling, fortresslike Azovstal steel mill complex where 2,000 Ukrainian fighters were said to be holed up, and instead to blockade the plant “so that a fly can’t get through.” That avoids, for now, a bloody battle in the strategic port city that would add to Russia’s mounting casualty toll and tie down troops who could be deployed to the broader battle for eastern Ukraine.

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