Fate of soldiers leaving Azovstal steel site unclear and numbers not confirmed by Ukraine
More than 900 Ukrainian troops who were at Mariupol’s besieged Azovstal steel plant have been sent to a prison colony on Russian-controlled territory, Moscow has said, as their fate remains uncertain.
A foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said on Wednesday evening that of the 959 Ukrainian service personnel Russia said had surrendered since Tuesday, 51 were being treated for their injuries and the remainder had been sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk region.
Russia’s defence ministry also released videos on Wednesday of what it said were Ukrainian fighters receiving hospital treatment in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk after surrendering at the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
In the videos, a group of men were shown lying on beds in a room, and two spoke briefly to the camera. In one, a soldier said he was being treated “normally”, adding that he was not being psychology pressured. It was not possible to establish if the soldier was speaking freely.
Zakharova told journalists all the wounded Azovstal soldiers “will be provided with qualified medical care”.
Ukraine has not commented on Russia’s latest update. In his address to the nation late on Tuesday, the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said an “evacuation mission” was continuing with help from “the most influential international mediators”. It is also not clear how many remain inside the plant.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said on Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant. Earlier, Ukrainian officials had said some of its soldiers remained.
The two sides in the war have released practically no details of the agreement that led to the surrender of the troops, who were holed up for weeks in an extensive network of tunnels and bunkers underneath the steelworks.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said on Tuesday the soldiers would be swapped in a prisoner exchange, but a number of Russian officials on Wednesday repeated statements made a day earlier by other hardliners that the soldiers should be tried. Pushilin on Wednesday called on an “international tribunal” to be set to decide the soldiers’ “fate”.
“As for war criminals as well as those who are nationalists, their fate, if they laid down their arms, should be decided by the courts,” he said. “If the enemy has laid down arms, then his fate will be decided by the courts. If it is a Nazi criminal, then it’s a tribunal.”
The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose forces have participated in the battle for Mariupol, said the Azov regiment, one of the main forces defending the steelworks, should not be exchanged and “must be punished by law”.
Speaking at an educational forum in Moscow, Kadyrov said Russian forces were facing some “difficulties” in Ukraine as a result of Nato arms deliveries to the country. It was the second statement by a Russian official on Wednesday that acknowledged some of the Russian military failings in Ukraine after Rashid Nurgaliyev, the deputy secretary of the Russian security council, said that “despite all the current difficulties, the special operation will be completed”.
The Azov regiment 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 Russian Duma is expected to discuss the subject on Wednesday and potentially accept a new resolution that would ban prisoner exchanges of Azov fighters. Next week, Russia’s supreme court will also hear an application to designate Ukraine’s Azov regiment as a “terrorist organisation”, opening the way for sentences of up to 20 years for those convicted of involvement.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which exists to examine major crimes, has already announced plans to interrogate the surrendered soldiers, without indicating whether they would be treated as suspects.
The fate of the forces taken prisoner at Azovstal could further complicate efforts to resume peace negotiations, with both sides blaming each other for a breakdown in talks.
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, accused Ukraine of a “total lack of desire” to continue the negotiations, while the Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said talks were on hold .
The Azov movement has been used as a key part of the Russian propaganda narrative to justify the war in Ukraine, and Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Russian politicians were using their surrender “to promote themselves and show their loyalty to the Kremlin”.
“But ultimately, their statements don’t matter much and it will be Putin who decides what happens to the Ukrainian soldiers,” Kolesnikov added. He said what Putin chose to do with the Azovstal soldiers could point to his current intentions in the conflict. “If he decides to try the soldiers, it will be a clear, worrying sign that he is willing to further escalate the situation. It will be a spit in Zelenskiy’s face.”
Alternatively, Kolesnikov said, trading soldiers with Ukraine would be framed domestically as a Russian “act of mercy and compassion” despite the current calls by Putin’s hardliners demanding severe punishment for the soldiers. “At home, Putin has flexibility and could play both cards,” Kolesnikov said.