According to Russia’s Defence Ministry, 1,730 Ukrainian fighters including 80 wounded have now surrendered from the Azovstal plant, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol.
Ukraine’s surrender directive, issued to the Mariupol fighters late on Monday, marked the end of the longest and most ferocious battle of the nearly three-month-long Ukraine war, whereby Ukrainian soldiers continued to fight Russian forces from the Azovstal steel mill long after the rest of the city had fallen.
The Mariupol fighters’ determination to continue the fight despite overwhelming odds elevated them to the status of heroes, and the city of Mariupol to a national symbol of resistance against Russian invaders.
Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Volodymyr Zelensky’s top advisers, even compared the 83 day-long defence of Mariupol to the legendary battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, when largely outnumbered Spartans opposed fierce resistance to the Persian armies of King Xerxes.
83 days of Mariupol defense will go down in history as the Thermopylae of the XXI century. “Azovstal” defenders ruined 🇷🇺’s plan to capture the east of 🇺🇦, took a hit on themselves and proved the real "combat capability" of 🇷🇺… This completely changed the course of the war.
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) May 17, 2022
The capture of the once-thriving port city of Mariupol will grant Russia total control over the Azov Sea and enable the creation of a land bridge between Russia, separatist territories in the east of Ukraine, and the Crimean Peninsula seized by Putin in 2014.
The Ukrainian soldiers who have surrendered from the Azovstal plant have been transported to Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The Russian defence ministry confirmed that the wounded would “receive assistance in medical institutions” in the Russian-controlled towns Novoazovsk and Olenivka, a former penal colony near Donetsk.
Although Ukrainian officials said they were working on a prisoner exchange with Russia to retrieve the Mariupol fighters, talks between warring parties have collapsed, making the future of the Mariupol fighters uncertain, to say the least.
Moscow speaks of plans to prosecute Ukrainian soldiers for war crimes
Russia’s Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI, declared on Tuesday that Ukrainian prisoners would be interrogated to “check their involvement in crimes committed against civilians.”
Russia’s Supreme Court is also set to hear a case from the Prosecutor General’s Office to designate Ukraine’s Azov Battalion as a “terrorist organization” based on the military group’s connections to far-right movements.
Russia’s plans to prosecute Ukrainian fighters cast doubts over the viability of the terms Ukraine had negotiated with Russia to surrender, and whether the hundreds of soldiers still remaining inside the plant will comply with the deal.
Russia has made no public mention of an agreement with Ukraine and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, told legislators on Tuesday that there should be no exchange for what he called “war criminals.” Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said on Twitter that the “Azov forces” had “unconditionally surrendered.”
— Dmitry Polyanskiy (@Dpol_un) May 17, 2022
A senior lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, who was part of the Russian negotiating team that mediated talks with Ukraine counterparts, even called for a moratorium on capital punishment in Russia to be lifted so that the death penalty could apply to prisoners of war.
Ukrainian authorities, on the other hand, have refused to discuss the operation and the terms of surrender in further detail. The New York Times has reported on a member of the negotiating team saying that discussions about the soldiers’ fate were still ongoing.
Kira Rudik, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament who took part in negotiations about the Azovstal steel plant, said in an interview on Tuesday that no procedure for the prisoner exchange had yet been agreed upon.
“We want to extract them to a third party country, like Turkey,” she said. “Russia is against it now. But what else can we do in such situation? We will have to carry on these negotiations.”
Rudik added that Ukraine had received guarantees from organizations like the Red Cross and the United Nations that the soldiers evacuated to Russian territory would be all right.
“It was the only reason we agreed to this, because the soldiers were ready to go to the end,” she said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar said at a news conference: “The only thing that can be said is that the Ukrainian state is doing everything possible and impossible” to save the soldiers.
Related articles: Evacuation of Mariupol Regiment: The End of an Epic Battle | First They Came for Mariupol: The Hero City of Ukraine Is Falling
The problem with Azov
Members of the Azov regiment, which make up most of the Mariupol fighters, are the focus of the Kremlin’s alleged effort to prosecute “war criminals,” at a moment when Ukraine is pursuing similar objectives and the first Russian soldier to face trial for war crimes has recently pleaded guilty.
Since the start of the conflict, Russia has continued to avoid naming its invasion of Ukraine a “war,” calling it a “special military operation” whose overarching goal is the “denazification” of Ukraine. This overtly fallacious narrative complicates the question of the Mariupol defenders’ fate since Putin’s decision to release them through a prisoner exchange could undermine his justifications for the invasion.
On the other hand, the Azov regiment’s actual connections to far-right movements cannot be overlooked, particularly in a context where domestic terrorism motivated by white supremacy ideologies is on the rise.
Shortly after the start of the war, Al Jazeera pointed to the problematic history of the Azov regiment, which has been accused of violating international humanitarian law in a 2016 report issued by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
They have been accused of leading pogroms against Roma and LGBTQ+ communities, and of torturing prisoners in the Donbas region between November 2015 and February 2016.
Initially created as an all-volunteer militia in May 2014, they reunited members of the ultra-nationalist group Patriot of Ukraine and the neo-Nazi Social National Assembly group. Prior to the war, the Azov regiment had become a new hub for the far-right across the world, recruiting men online who sought to acquire combat training and membership in white supremacist groups.
The Azov regiment was officially integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine in November 2014. While it is unclear exactly how many of its current members pledge allegiance to far-right ideologies, their presence in the Ukrainian army and ensuing capture provide fodder for Russian propaganda.
Back in 2014, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) had voiced their concerns over the involvement of Azov in the struggle against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region. They worried that Azov members’ status as war heroes would wind up earning them political traction.
They also reported on Russian propaganda using Azov’s involvement in the defence of Ukraine to cast the entirety of the Ukrainian army as neo-Nazi. This further enables Russia to try many of its Ukrainian captives as “terrorists,” accusing them of being members or accomplices of Azov.
Finally, there is a risk that Russian forces may resort to summary killings against prisoners from Azovstal – which would constitute a violation of human rights international law. According to a report by Amnesty International, Russia’s practice of execution-style killings against soldiers and hostages across eastern Ukraine can be traced back to April 2014, when pro-Russian insurgents fought against the Ukrainian military in the Donbas region.
Failure to rescue Ukraine’s acclaimed national heroes may compromise Zelensky’s popularity at home and in Western countries. It remains unclear who exactly guarantees the safety of the evacuated soldiers, and whether any deal on a prisoner exchange will be agreed upon soon. Any attempt at reaching an agreement certainly appears difficult as both warring parties acknowledge that talks between them are stalled. Not only has antipathy towards Russia increased since the start of the war, particularly as evidence of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers is piling up, but Ukraine has also felt emboldened by its success on the battlefield.
Russia’s capture of Mariupol may not be enough to compensate for its significant losses in Kyiv and, more recently, in Kharkiv. Moreover, the once flourishing port city is now in ruins and over 20,000 inhabitants were killed, according to Ukrainian officials.
Ukrainian forces also benefit from consistent and increased support from Western countries providing heavy weapons and working on plans to phase out its reliance on Russian gas and oil, turning to sustainable energy sources instead.
But the end of the war isn’t near. On the contrary, Russian forces seem determined to defend captured territories, destroying roads and bridges, erecting concrete barriers, and digging trenches. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense warned last Tuesday that “the war is entering a protracted phase,” which would have disastrous repercussions across the world, particularly in the form of a global food crisis whose signs are already manifesting in West and East African regions where millions of people go hungry, and in Europe, where food insecurity rises in consequence of soaring living and energy costs.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Soldiers from the Azov Battalion observe the terrain outside a village near Mariupol on 5 July 2014. Featured Photo Credit: Carl Ridderstråle/Wikimedia Commons.