Surrender or evacuation? Fate of the Azovstal defenders uncertain

Since Monday, according to Russia, almost a thousand Ukrainian soldiers have surrendered to the Azovstal industrial complex in Mariupol. For Kiev, they are heroes and the authorities express hope for a prisoner exchange. But Moscow does not seem to plan to do that at all.

โ€œNazi criminals should not be exchanged,โ€ said the President of the State Duma, the Russian lower house, yesterday. Indeed, part of the expelled Ukrainian forces are members of the Azov Battalion. This is an originally far-right militia that has become part of the national guard. Putin often refers to it when he speaks of Ukraine‘s intended โ€œdenazificationโ€.

Mix of Armed Forces

It is very unlikely that Russia will let the Azovstal defenders of the Azov Battalion go quickly. By the way, other Ukrainian forces had also been entrenched in the industrial estate, such as remnants of a Marine battalion and foreign mercenaries.

Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated via humanitarian corridors from Mariupol’s last resistance stronghold. Russia states that 959 Ukrainian soldiers have left Azovstal. More than fifty of them are said to have been taken to a hospital. An unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers are still hiding in the industrial park.

These videos have been released by the Russian Ministry of Defense of the Ukrainian military:

According to eyewitnesses, several buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers were transferred to a former penal colony in territory occupied by Russia and pro-Russian militias. This detention center is located just south of the major city of Donetsk.

‘Pitiful conditions’

Putin states that all prisoners of war are treated according to international rules. But the Ukrainian human rights ombudswoman strongly contradicts that. It refers to the 3,000 inhabitants of Mariupol who, according to her, are being held under appalling circumstances in another former Soviet penal colony, also near Donetsk.

There is not enough water and bread in these detention centers, and prisoners are only allowed to go to the bathroom once a day, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol recently said. He also believes that torture is being carried out and there are hours of interrogations.

Russian justice plans to interrogate the soldiers from the Azovstal complex. And in the Duma, a resolution is in the making that it is strongly recommended not to exchange the military evacuated from the industrial complex if they are classified as neo-Nazi or nationalist. On top of that, the Supreme Court of Russia is expected to declare the Azov Battalion a terrorist organization next week.

โ€œI want to emphasize that our country needs living heroes,โ€ Zelensky said when he announced the news about the Azovstal defenders. The word surrender did not speak to the president, he spoke of an evacuation.

Behind the scenes, according to Zelensky, there is still a lot of negotiation. Among other things, the UN and the Red Cross are said to be involved. But it keeps guessing what comes out of that.

That was also the case when hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the industrial park earlier this month. The reason for that secrecy was the safety of all involved.

‘Domestic Propaganda’

The Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defence states that the Kremlin mainly speaks about trials before the stage. The calls to try some of the military removed from the steel works for war crimes โ€œare most likely domestic propaganda in Russia,โ€ she told the BBC today.

The Battle of Mariupol, from the first bombing to the fall of Azovstal: