Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol now face an uncertain fate in Russian hands amid conflicting reports about the agreement negotiated by Ukraine, Russia, and international agencies.
Russia’s defense ministry says that the Azovstal defenders surrendered, and several Russian officials have called for putting some of the prisoners on trial for war crimes. The Ukrainian side considers the evacuation to be an operation to save the lives of the Mariupol garrison who have completed their heroic mission, and they are expecting an exchange of prisoners.
Azovstal was the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the southern port city that has been besieged since March 1, the site of the war’s bloodiest and most extended battle. Its fall opened a land corridor connecting Russian-annexed Crimea with occupied territory in the eastern Donbas region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that “tens of thousands” have died in Mariupol, while local officials last month said those killed numbered as many as 22,000, according to CNN. Mariupol’s mayor has estimated that 90% of the city’s infrastructure has been damaged, 40% of it beyond repair.
Russia has been accused of widespread war crimes with thousands of bodies dumped into mass graves. On March 16, Russian forces bombed the drama theater sheltering hundreds of women and children. An Associated Press investigation has found evidence that close to 600 people were killed in the attack.
On Wednesday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian soldiers have been “captured” since Monday, according to the official RIA Novosti news agency. Fifty-one severely wounded soldiers were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, 28 miles east of Mariupol, which is held by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk province.
More ominously, Konashenkov told reporters that all the prisoners were members of the Azov Regiment. Russia has branded the Azov Regiment as a neo-Nazi formation. The Azovstal garrison also included Ukrainian Marines, border guards, and police officers.
The Ukrainian side has confirmed that on the first day of the evacuation, 264 Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated, including slightly over 50 severely wounded soldiers who were taken by bus and ambulance to Novoazovsk. Ukrainian authorities have not released any further information on the departure of the Mariupol defenders, so as not to cause them harm, Ukrainskaya Pravda reported.
Ukrainian and Russian officials said most of the soldiers evacuated from Azovstal have been taken to a former penal colony converted into a prison camp in Olenivka, another town in Donetsk province held by Russian-backed separatists.
But the Ukrainian soldiers in Russian hands face an uncertain future. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not say whether the Ukrainian troops would be treated as prisoners of war or war criminals. Peskov only said that Vladimir Putin had guaranteed that Ukrainian fighters who surrendered at Azovstal would be treated “in accordance with international standards,” Reuters reported.
But in a Telegram post Tuesday, the Investigation Committee of the Russian Federation, the Kremlin’s version of the FBI, announced plans to interrogate the Ukrainian prisoners:
As part of an investigation into crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime against the civilian population of Donbas, investigators from the Investigation Committee of Russia will interrogate the fighters who had been hiding at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol and surrendered.
The Investigation Committee said that the investigators would establish the identities of the “nationalists” and check whether they had been involved in crimes against civilians, and the information obtained during the interrogations would be compared against other data in Russian criminal case files.
The office of Russia’s prosecutor general has asked the Supreme Court to recognize Ukraine’s Azov Regiment as a “terrorist organisation,” the state-run Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday, citing the Ministry of Justice website. Russia’s Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case on May 26.
Most of the fighters in the Azovstal plant belonged to the Azov Regiment, which was formed in 2014 as an extreme right-wing volunteer militia to fight Russian-backed separatists who had taken control of parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea.
The Azov Regiment recaptured Mariupol in 2014 and set up their headquarters in the city, repelling repeated attacks by the separatists during the eight-year war in Donbas preceding the Feb. 24 Russian invasion.
Critics say Azov initially championed white nationalist, anti-immigrant, and other extreme-right ideas, but Ukrainian officials say Azov was later folded into Ukraine’s National Guard, that it has abandoned its ultra-nationalist origins, and that it has nothing to do with politics.
Azov denies allegations of fascism, neo-Nazism, and racism and says that Ukrainians from various backgrounds including Greeks, Jews, Crimean Tatars, and ethnic Russians serve in Azov. Its current commander, Denys Prokopenko, has been dubbed a hero of Ukraine by Zelenskyy, who is Jewish. But Azov was turned into the boogeyman by Russian propagandists who use its past to justify claims that Ukraine needed to be “de-Nazified” and demilitarized.
Analyzing Russian news media reports, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) indicated that there is much uncertainty about what Russia might do next:
The Kremlin might have agreed to the conditional surrender of the Azovstal defenders to accelerate Russia’s ability to declare Mariupol fully under its control. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that the Russian Defense Ministry’s Department of Information and Mass Communications is hastily preparing a press tour of foreign journalists through occupied territories of Ukraine between May 18 and May 21. The Kremlin also could have agreed to such a deal to secure a victory in order to deflect criticism on social media of the failed Russian Siverskyi Donets River crossings and the overall slow pace of the invasion.
The Kremlin might refuse to exchange the Mariupol defenders. Some Russian State Duma members are petitioning to pass laws that would prohibit prisoner exchanges for individuals accused of “Nazism.” Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin claimed that the Mariupol defenders must be charged with war crimes and cannot be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. The Kremlin may ignore the Russian State Duma’s concerns or use them to sabotage negotiations with Ukraine.
The surrender agreement generated some outrage and confusion on pro-Russian social media, rather than the celebration of the full capitulation of Mariupol that the Kremlin likely expected—possibly undermining Russian information operations. Some Russian Telegram channels ridiculed the Russian Defense Ministry for negotiating with Ukrainian “terrorists” and “Nazis.” Some bloggers criticized the Donetsk People’s Republic for organizing the evacuation proceedings and blamed negotiating authorities for creating conditions for Ukrainian martyrdom. Several Russian bloggers also called for the imprisonment or murder of surrendered Ukrainian servicemen. Russian audiences are likely dissatisfied with the surrender agreement because they expected Russian forces to destroy Ukrainian defenders at Azovstal. The Kremlin has created large amounts of propaganda that portrayed successful Russian assaults on Azovstal without clearly setting conditions for surrender negotiations. Some Russians may find it difficult to reconcile the triumphant messaging with the abrupt negotiations leading to a negotiated surrender.
The Russian parliament had been scheduled to consider a resolution on Wednesday banning the exchange of any Azov soldiers, but didn’t take up the issue, according to the Associated Press.
On Wednesday’s national newscast, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told viewers they should perceive Russian statements about Azovstal defenders as propaganda political statements. She said the negotiations are “very sensitive” and warned that excessive publicity could damage the exchange process.
Russia has its own political processes, has its own political groups … Thus, during this rescue operation (for the defenders of Mariupol) and during the negotiations, we have been hearing really different statements from different people representing different forces.
Therefore, we must perceive them as political statements made for their propaganda effect and to achieve the propaganda goal for domestic Russian consumption …
I understand that everyone wants to know at least some information, but the rescue operation is still underway. That’s first and foremost. Secondly, negotiations are underway, because the rescue operation itself has several difficult stages.
On Tuesday, Malyar stressed the importance of the heroic defense of Mariupol to the Ukrainian war effort. Ukrainskaya Pravda quoted her as saying:
Thanks to the resistance put up by Mariupol’s defenders, the enemy was not able to transfer units of troops. Nearly 20,000 military personnel were prevented from being transferred to other regions [of Ukraine], in turn preventing the enemy from quickly capturing Zaporizhzhia. The enemy could not create favourable conditions to encircle [Ukrainian] Joint Forces.
Most importantly, Mariupol’s resistance bought us crucial time to create further lines of defence, form a reserve, and carry out other critically important tasks of the military operation.”
In his Tuesday night video address, Zelenskyy said that “the most influential international mediators are involved” in getting the remaining Ukrainian troops safely out of the Azovstal steel plant.
It’s not clear what assurances, if any, Russia gave the International Committee of the Red Cross or the United Nations, which were involved in arranging the evacuation of the Azovstal plant.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Denis Krivosheev demanded that Russia not abuse the captured Ukrainian soldiers.
Ukraine’s soldiers deployed in Mariupol area have been dehumanized by Russian media and portrayed in Putin’s propaganda as “neo-Nazis” throughout Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. This characterization raises serious concerns over their fate as prisoners of war.
Amnesty International has documented summary killings of captives by Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, as well as the extrajudicial executions of Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces in recent weeks. The soldiers who surrendered today must not meet the same fate.
Prisoners of war must not be subjected to any form of torture or ill-treatment, and should be given immediate access to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The relevant authorities must fully respect the rights of prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva conventions.
But if Russia abuses the captured soldiers and goes through with threats to put some of them on trial for war crimes, it could leave Zelenskyy open to criticism that he abandoned the troops he has praised as heroes. The Associated Press reported:
“Zelenskyy may face unpleasant questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think tank in Kyiv. “There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers.”
And it remains unclear how many Ukrainian fighters remain within the sprawling Azovstal complex or what they might do given the Russian threats against their comrades who left the complex. Earlier this month, civilians sheltering in Azovstal were evacuated. Civilians and fighters alike suffered through horrendous conditions due to the lack of food, water, medicine, and other essentials.
Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader in Donetsk province, said Wednesday that no high-ranking commanders among the Azovstal defenders had “surrendered” so far, according to Ukrainskaya Pravda, citing a report by the separatists’ DAN news agency.
Pushilin also announced plans to demolish what’s left of the Azovstal plant and replace it with a technology park, or just a park area on the site. He expressed the bizarre notion that Mariupol “will be rebuilt with an emphasis on the resort business.”
But the Mariupol City Council, which has relocated outside the city, said the real aim was to destroy an industrial complex that is vital to the Ukrainian economy. Azovstal, which was built in the 1930s when Joseph Stalin was the Soviet leader, was one of the largest steel mills in Europe. Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, whose company owned Azovstal, has declared that he is ready to help invest in rebuilding the steel and iron works once Mariupol is liberated and the war ends.
Updated with new statements by Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar urging people to disregard Russian statements about captured Azov Regiment fighters.