kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Hundreds of staunch Ukrainian soldiers who last held out against Russian forces from a Mariupol steel plant faced an uncertain future Tuesday in Kremlin custody after the Ukrainian military ordered them to surrender.
The surrender directive, issued late Monday, took soldiers prisoner and ended the longest battle yet in Russia’s nearly three-month invasion of Ukraine.
Though Russia has fought on other battlefronts, the surrender at Mariupol solidified one of Russia’s few significant territorial gains: the conquest of a once-thriving southeastern port. The surrender also gave Russia’s state media the ingredients to claim that their side was winning.
Still, Mariupol has largely been reduced to ruin, Ukrainian authorities say more than 20,000 inhabitants were killed, and the city has become a symbol of the grotesque horrors of war.
By early Tuesday morning, many of the fighters holed up in a maze of shelters under the Azovstal steelworks, a Soviet-era complex besieged by the Russians for weeks, emerged and surrendered. They were transported to Russian-controlled territory aboard buses marked with a “Z,” the Russian emblem of what President Vladimir V. Putin called his country’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities said little about the terms of the surrender, except to state that the Ukrainian fighters were heroes and that, as prisoners, they would soon be exchanged for Russian prisoners held by Ukraine.
“The only thing that can be said is that the Ukrainian state is doing everything possible and impossible” to save the soldiers, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.
But Russian officials said nothing about a swap; instead, they raised the possibility that at least some of the prisoners would be treated as war criminals.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s equivalent to the FBI, said Tuesday that investigators would question captured fighters to “verify their involvement in crimes committed against civilians.”
And the prosecutor general’s office asked the Russian Supreme Court to declare the military unit to which most of the captured fighters belong, the Azov battalion, a terrorist organization. The Russian media has exploited the Azov battalion’s connections to far-right movements to lend an appearance of credibility to false Kremlin claims that Russian forces were fighting Nazis in Ukraine.
The Russian threats against the prisoners raised questions about the feasibility of the terms that Ukraine had negotiated with Moscow to surrender, and whether the hundreds of soldiers still inside the steel plant would comply with the agreement.
News of Ukraine’s surrender order to its own fighters, seen nationally as heroes who have faced deprivation and doom, was greeted with anxiety in the country, where antipathy toward Russia has only deepened since the war.
Many expressed fear that the last defenders of Mariupol would suffer as prisoners of Russia, although the most likely alternative was certain death inside the steelworks.
“I am waiting for news and praying,” said Natalia Zarytska, who was part of a delegation of wives and mothers of men inside Azovstal who had sought the intervention of Turkey, which has good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, to ensure security. . evacuation route for your loved ones.
The Ukrainian government tried to extol the bravery of the fighters, who refused to surrender until ordered to do so.
“83 days of the defense of Mariupol will go down in history as the Thermopylae of the 21st century”, Mykhailo Podolyak, one of the main advisers to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Twitter, referring to the battle of 480 BC. C. in which an outnumbered force of Greeks faced a much larger Persian army. He said the defenders in Azovstal had “ruined” Russia’s plan to capture eastern Ukraine and “completely changed the course of the war.”
Still, the fate of the captured soldiers could create political problems for Zelensky, whose leadership during the war has boosted his popularity at home and in friendly Western countries.
Putin could also face an uncomfortable decision about releasing any of the captives, even in a prisoner swap, as he has repeatedly tried to portray members of the Azov battalion as Nazis. Repatriating them could undermine that fictional narrative.
Ukraine’s decision to stop armed defense at the plant appeared to end the last vestige of resistance that prevented Russia from fully controlling a swath of southeastern Ukraine stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean peninsula, which was occupied by Russia. Russia eight years ago.
Developments in the south underscore how much territory Moscow has captured and suggest Ukrainian forces will face major challenges trying to recapture it. At the same time, Ukraine’s military has been emboldened by its successes against Russian forces elsewhere, so prospects for a negotiated settlement have dimmed.
Both sides acknowledge that the talks have essentially collapsed amid publicly aired recriminations.
Along a path that stretches more than 500 miles from Luhansk in the east to Kherson on the Black Sea, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces were building defensive positions, installing governments loyal to the Kremlin and taking steps to “Russify.” to the population.
In Zaporizhzhia, a region west of Mariupol, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces had been destroying roads and bridges to stop Ukrainian counterattacks. Moscow troops also erected concrete barriers and dug trenches around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, in the city of Enerhodar, which Russia seized in the first month of the war, the nuclear power company said. from Ukraine.
In the Russian-occupied Kherson region, the nation’s agricultural heartland, the Ukrainians have been staging counterattacks for weeks, slowly trying to regain lost ground, but have yet to launch a major offensive.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Key Developments
in Mariupol. The bloodiest battle of the war in Ukraine ended in Mariupol, when the Ukrainian army ordered fighters holed up in a steel plant in the city to surrender. Ukraine’s decision to end the fighting gave Moscow full control over a large part of southern Ukraine, stretching from the Russian border to Crimea.
The Ukrainian military said late Tuesday that Russia was taking steps to prepare for a long-term military occupation. “The war is entering a protracted phase,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement. “We see how in the Kherson region, in the Zaporizhzhia region, the Russian invaders are actively carrying out engineering and fortification work in order to move to defense if necessary.”
Still, Ukrainian forces, backed by a growing flow of heavy weapons from Western allies, have mounted fierce resistance on other battlefronts, driving Russian forces first out of the capital, kyiv, and in the last days of the northeastern city of Kharkiv.
Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that more than 50 “severely wounded” fighters from Mariupol were being transported to a hospital in Novoazovsk, a Ukrainian city near the Russian border controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. Another 211 people were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor to Olenivka, also under Russian control.
Ukrainian officials said the soldiers would be returned to Ukrainian-controlled territory “under an exchange procedure.”
However, it was unclear who was ensuring the security of the military and whether any procedures had been agreed upon before the evacuation began.
“Those 211 people who were evacuated to Olenivka, their fate is critical for negotiations at this time,” Kira Rudik, a member of parliament and leader of the Holos party, who is involved in the negotiations on Azovstal, said Tuesday afternoon.
In recent days, Western countries have reaffirmed their support for Ukraine and against Russian interests.
The leaders of Sweden and Finland said Tuesday they would jointly submit their applications to join the NATO alliance this week and visit Washington to meet with President Biden, who strongly supports their plans.
In Brussels, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen called on European Union nations to increase their spending in Ukraine to help it deal with the economic crisis and the reconstruction that will be necessary due to the Russian invasion.
“Our joint efforts are critical to help ensure that Ukraine’s democracy prevails over Putin’s aggression,” Ms. Yellen said, in the midst of a week-long trip to Europe, at the Brussels Economic Forum.
Congress has already approved a $13.6 billion emergency spending package for Ukraine and is expected to approve an additional $40 billion in aid.
Valerie Hopkins reported from kyiv, Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reports were contributed by Alan Rappeport from Brussels, Safak Timur from Istanbul and Johanna Lemola from Helsinki.