The fate of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who have ended weeks of resistance at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol remains unclear, after the fighters surrendered and were transferred to Russian-controlled territory.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said they would be swapped in a prisoner exchange, but some Russian officials said on Tuesday they could be tried or even executed. MPs in Russia’s State Duma said they would propose new laws that could derail prisoner exchanges of fighters who Moscow claims are “terrorists”.
Russian investigators have also said they plan to interrogate the soldiers and could charge them for “crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime against the civilian population” in south-east Ukraine”.
On Tuesday evening, seven buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers left the Azovstal plant in the port city and arrived at a former prison colony in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka in Donetsk, Reuters reported.
Russia called the Azovstal operation a mass surrender, while the Ukrainian army said the soldiers defending the steel plant had “performed their combat task” and that the main goal was now to save their lives.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,” said the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in a video address.
For weeks, hundreds of troops have been holed up in a warren of tunnels and bunkers underneath the steelworks, as Russian forces took control of the rest of the city after turning much of it into an uninhabitable wasteland. Many of those stuck at Azovstal had serious injuries, with limited medical care and dwindling supplies.
In the last few weeks, civilians who had also taken cover in the plant were rescued after a deal was brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross to allow them to leave for Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Ukraine had been pushing for a deal that would also allow the fighters to retreat to Ukrainian-controlled areas, or for their evacuation to a neutral country. However, with that not forthcoming, Ukrainian officials announced in the early hours of Tuesday that the defence of the plant was in effect over.
“This was the only option,” said the deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, on Tuesday.
Russia’s defence ministry said 265 Ukrainian fighters surrendered at the plant, including 51 seriously injured soldiers who would be transferred to hospitals in Novoazovsk in Russian-controlled territory in east Ukraine. It was not immediately clear how many Ukrainian troops remained in the plant.
Footage shared by pro-Russian social media accounts showed groups of soldiers carrying out the wounded on stretchers amid the devastation outside the plant.
“An exchange procedure will take place for their return home,” said Maliar. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk also said the fighters would be exchanged. “God willing, everything will be fine,” she wrote.
Zelenskiy sounded a more cautious note. “The work of bringing the boys home continues, and this work needs delicacy – and time,” he said.
Details of the agreement that led to the evacuation remain unclear, and a flurry of hardline statements from Russian officials suggested an exchange could still be some way off.
Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, promised the fighters who surrendered would be treated “in accordance with international standards”, but this was immediately undermined by statements from two Russian officials.
Leonid Slutsky, a Russian MP who took part in negotiations with Ukraine earlier in the war, suggested Russia should lift its moratorium on the death penalty for fighters from the Azov regiment, one of the main forces defending the steelworks, calling them “animals in human form”.
“Nazi criminals should not be exchanged,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, one of Russia’s most powerful officials and the chair of the State Duma, during a speech on Tuesday. “Our country treats those who surrendered or were captured humanely. But with regards to Nazis, our position should be unchanged: these are war criminals and we must do everything so that they stand trial.”
Volodin did not directly address the surrender of the troops at Azovstal in his statement but the context was clear as Russia’s defence ministry released video of the evacuation of the Ukrainian fighters on Tuesday morning, saying some of them were members of the Azov battalion.
Russia’s justice ministry appealed to the supreme court to declare the Azov regiment a terrorist organisation on Tuesday, possibly introducing another hurdle to a potential exchange.
On Tuesday evening, Russia’s investigative committee said it would interrogate the captured fighters and could seek to charge them with crimes against civilians in the Donbas region of east Ukraine.
“Russian investigators will identify the nationalists, check them for involvement in crimes committed against the civilian population, and the information obtained during the interrogations will be compared with other data available,” the investigative committee said in a statement.
Azov has been a key part of the Russian propaganda narrative about the war in Ukraine, which was originally launched with the supposed goal of “denazification”. It was formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight Russia-backed forces in east Ukraine and many of its original members had far-right extremist views. Since then, the unit has been integrated into the Ukrainian national guard and its commanders say it has moved away from its far-right origins.
The defence of Mariupol has come to symbolise heroism in the face of the Russian attack for many millions of Ukrainians. As well as the boost to morale, Ukrainian military sources have claimed that by putting up such a fierce fight for Mariupol, the Russian army’s advance was stalled.
On Twitter, the Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak compared the Azovstal defenders to the small force of Spartans who held out against a much larger attacking force in the battle of Thermopylae in the fifth century BC. The defence of Mariupol “completely changed the course of the war” and “ruined Russia’s plans to capture the east of Ukraine”, he wrote.
Sandra Krotevych, the sister of Azov’s chief of staff, Bohdan Krotevych, said she had been in contact with her brother at 5am on Tuesday and he was still on the territory of Azovstal, but since then she had not heard from him. In recent weeks, she said, as the supplies hoarded in the steelworks began to dwindle and Russian strikes on the plant continued, the soldiers had been eating only once a day and had been drinking water from pipes and other unclean sources.
Sandra Krotevych said the fighters had long realised Mariupol no longer had strategic importance for the Ukrainian army and were hoping to be able to bury their dead and evacuate their injured, but were holding out for a deal that would have allowed them to leave to Ukraine-controlled territory or a third country.
“To put it mildly, I’m a bit surprised. I am not happy about it and I would have liked to hear security guarantees before this happened,” she said in a telephone interview.
Now, the fighters are at the mercy of Russian authorities, with hardline commentators demanding they are not exchanged. On state-funded RT, the commentator Anton Krasovsky called the evacuees “wounded terrorists” and demanded they should not be handed over to Ukraine.
“Any Azov member given to Kyiv will be treated as our defeat, as our Russian capitulation,” said Krasovsky. He called on his viewers “not to allow this”, saying there should be a trial and “RT can hold a livestream for their wives”.
Amid such rhetoric from Russia, Krotevych called on the international community to find a way to ensure the soldiers were returned to Ukraine. “Their lives are in the hands of international leaders. If they can find a way to save them, then all the citizens of Ukraine will be extremely grateful. They are heroes for the whole of Ukraine,” she said.