The Russian Defense Ministry stated last Wednesday that some 959 Ukrainian troops from the Azovstal Iron and Steelworks Plant have surrendered after three long months of repelling Russian advances in the besieged port city of Mariupol. If determined to be accurate, this signals that Mariupol has now wholly fallen under Russian control.
Previously, SOFREP reported that 260 Ukrainian soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant had been transported to Olenivka and Novoazovsk, Russian-controlled cities. The Ukrainian side is hoping that both parties will agree upon a prisoner exchange. However, seeing that peace talks between the two nations have officially been suspended, the Mariupol defenders’ fate is now left with the Russians, which have not been the best people to deal with amid mounting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.
These troops, specifically those from the Azov Regiment and the 36th Marine Brigade, among others, are highly regarded as heroes in Ukraine for dogged tenacity in defending Ukrainian territory against overwhelming Russian forces. The Ukrainian government credits those who defended the Azovstal steel plant as instrumental in preventing the Russians from advancing further, preventing 17 battalion tactical groups comprised of 20,000 soldiers from capturing more key areas.
Defenders of #Azovstal being taken from the plant to Russian-controlled territory. According to Reuters, seven buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers arrived at a penal colony near occupied Donetsk on May 17.
📸Alexei Alexandrov/AP pic.twitter.com/KPE7eZ0zFp
— Anastasiia Lapatina (@lapatina_) May 18, 2022
“The goal was that our guys, who heroically defend the city and restrain the enemy directly in Mariupol, did not allow them to pass through Mariupol,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said to VOA News. “That is, they saved the nation, they allowed the Armed Forces of Ukraine to prepare and other cities to be more prepared for this terrible war that has already taken place in Ukraine.”
Despite their fates still in Russian hands, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hopes that they will be able to save their lives and get them home to their families.
“Mariupol defenders are heroes of our time. They are forever in history,” the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said.
Mariupol Soldiers Face So-called’ War Crimes’
After their supposed surrender, it was reported by The Times that the Ukrainian forces in Russian hands were taken to a Russian prison colony and were going to face trials as they were accused of committing war crimes.
Russian state news agency TASS reported that the Russian Defense Ministry had accused them of committing various war crimes, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov stated earlier in March that the Azov Regiment, accused of “exceptional cruelty,” had been “exterminating” civilian populations in Donetsk and Luhansk.
“I underscore that all these and other war crimes in Mariupol are being committed by the punishers trapped in the city. We have warned repeatedly that, as the ring contracts, the number of provocations from the Nazis will keep growing. They have nowhere to run from there,” he stated.
“It was these Azov battalion Nazis who had been exterminating civilian population in Donetsk and Lugansk republics, deliberately and with exceptional cruelty, for eight years.”
Evacuees are being taken to a Russian prison colony and could be put on trial as “Nazi war criminals” rather than exchanged for captured Russians, as Kyiv hopes pic.twitter.com/GqdEueB2co
— The Times (@thetimes) May 18, 2022
Today, they reported that the Investigative Committee of Russia (the Russian FBI) would question the soldiers, specifically the Azov Regiment. Many fear that the Russians will force and coerce the soldiers to admit that they are “Nazis” and that they committed war crimes against the Russians. This will then be published as Russian war propaganda in an attempt to frame Ukraine as a “Nazi” state.
Hopes to exchange these surrendered Ukrainian soldiers have also been trashed by the Russian Duma, with Speaker of the Russian Duma Vyacheslav Volodin stating that there will be no exchanges that are going to take place. More so, there are attempts within the Kremlin to officially label the Azov Regiment and all those who defended the Azovstal steel plant as “terrorists” and “terrorist organizations.” If deemed terrorists, these soldiers will not be treated as POWs and may be subjected to harsh and possibly violent treatment.
“Nazi criminals should not be exchanged. They are war criminals, and we must do everything to bring them to justice,” Volodin said.
Another Russian legislator, Leonid Slutsky, a deputy of the Russian Duma, described the Ukrainian troops as “animals in human form” and stated that they should be executed. He is also one of Russia’s negotiators in the negotiations with Ukraine, which have since been suspended.
“They do not deserve to live after the monstrous crimes against humanity that they have committed and that are committed continuously against our prisoners,” said Slutsky.
Despite these calls, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin guaranteed that all prisoners would be treated fairly according to international law and standards.
For Russia, these prisoners are a propaganda gold mine as they represent the core of their claims that Ukraine was being run by “Nazis,” and was a primary reason given by Putin for invading Ukraine. While war crime show trials will not be convincing to anyone in the West, they would be useful in trying to bolster Russian morale at home, with their army having little to show for more than 3 months of bloody and costly sacrifice against Ukrainian forces.
For the Zelensky government, the more they make of these prisoners, the less likely they will be to get them back in an exchange for Russian prisoners held in Ukraine. We should expect that the Kremlin will demand an exchange of 3-4 to 1 for these “Nazis” for Russian POWs to maximize their value. The Kremlin will say that they exchanged brave Russian soldiers for convicted criminals for its propaganda value to its own people.