Hundreds of Ukrainian militants trapped in Azovstal’s massive steelworks for more than two months have surrendered to their Russian besiegers after their commanders finally took time to defend Mariupol.
A total of 264 soldiers, 53 of them seriously wounded, were taken in a convoy of buses to two towns held by Russian-backed rebels in the Donetsk region, Ukrainian officials said on Tuesday. It’s unclear how many more remain in the steelworks, where up to 1,000 combatants holed up in a network of underground tunnels and caves during a medieval siege.
The decision to evacuate them, announced by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy overnight, allows Russia to finally achieve victory in the Battle of Mariupol, a strategic city on the Sea of Azov crucial to Russia’s plans for a land bridge between southern Russia and the occupied Crimea is crucial. The battle is believed to have claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, including about 600 people who took refuge in a theater bombed by the invaders.
During the 82-day siege, the defenders of Mariupol, led by the Azov regiment, withstood and humiliated a much larger Russian force. Many had already said goodbye to their families in snapped phone calls from the steel mill, confident they would never leave.
The Ukrainian military said the Azovstal defenders had accomplished their mission by forcing the Russians to continue fighting for Mariupol and buying time for Ukrainian forces elsewhere, and their commanders have now been ordered to do what is necessary to ” to save her life.”
In a televised address, Zelenskyy carefully avoided the word defeat and said he hoped to trade Azovstal prisoners for Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine.
“We hope that we can save our boys’ lives,” he said. “Among them are seriously injured. You will be looked after. Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes.”
Russia is likely to deal harshly with any prisoner exchanges, particularly for soldiers from the Azov regiment, which was raised during the original 2014 Donbass war as a paramilitary militia unit with far-right connections. President Vladimir Putin has consistently portrayed his “special operation” in Ukraine as an attempt to “denazify” the country, and Azov has been the target of his TV propagandists.
Within hours of Azovstal’s surrender, the Russian Duma was reportedly debating a law that would prevent Azov Regiment prisoners from being exchanged for Russians. Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the parliament, said “Nazi criminals” should not be exchanged.
The families of Azovstal’s defenders have appealed for help internationally, including to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis. A possible evacuation deal included an offer by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to give the fighters and their families sanctuary in Turkey.
As dire as conditions at the steel mill were, with shortages of food, medicine and ammunition, the heroes of Mariupol are far from safe, pawns in the hands of a military power stung by its failures and with a documented disregard for human life.
Throughout the two-and-a-half month war, there were repeated reports of commanders casually using rank and file troops as cannon fodder, refusing permission to remove soldiers’ bodies from the battlefield, and often even disposing of bodies instead of picking them up from intercepted communications between soldiers and their families send back to Russia.
Authorities in Kyiv used facial recognition software to identify dead Russian soldiers before contacting their families to suggest collecting the bodies, according to a CNN report this week. Most of the time, according to the responsible Ukrainian minister, the only answer is a rude threat.
A series of interviews with Russian POWs posted by Kiev YouTuber Volodymyr Kolkin suggest that Russian commanders are even shooting their own wounded instead of having to hospitalize them. A group of captured soldiers told how an officer “disposed of” wounded men after a skirmish with Ukrainian forces.
“There was a wounded young man lying on the ground,” said one soldier. “Commander asks him, ‘Can you walk? No?’ He just pulled his gun and shot him.”
“And not just one,” said another soldier. “The commander shot four or five people that way, young people.”
A third soldier interrupted, “They could have been rescued, transported somewhere, gotten some help, but he just killed them.”
https://www.thedailybeast.com/surrender-of-azovstal-leaves-heroes-of-mariupol-to-face-putins-twisted-justice?source=articles&via=rss Azovstal’s surrender leaves Heroes of Mariupol to face Putin’s twisted justice