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Ukrainian resistance fighters in Mariupol surrender to an uncertain fate


KYIV, Ukraine — Hundreds of die-hard Ukrainian soldiers who had made a last stand against Russian forces from a steel mill in Mariupol faced an uncertain future on Tuesday in Kremlin custody after the Ukrainian military ordered them to to surrender.

The surrender directive, issued late Monday, took soldiers prisoner and ended the longest battle to date in Russia’s nearly three-month-old invasion of Ukraine.

Even though Russia struggled on other battlefronts, the surrender of Mariupol solidified one of Russia’s few significant territorial achievements – the conquest of a once-thriving southeastern port. The surrender also gave Russian state media the ingredients to claim his side was winning.

Yet Mariupol has been largely reduced to rubble, Ukrainian officials say more than 20,000 residents have been killed, and the city has become a symbol of the grotesque horrors of war.

By early Tuesday, scores of fighters ensconced in a maze of shelters under the Azovstal steelworks, a Soviet-era complex besieged by the Russians for weeks, had emerged and surrendered. They were transported to Russian-held territory on buses emblazoned with the “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 other than to assert 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, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said during a a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

But Russian officials said nothing about an exchange – instead, they raised the prospect that at least some of the prisoners would be treated as war criminals.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s equivalent of the FBI, said on Tuesday investigators would interview captured fighters to “verify their involvement in crimes committed against civilians.”

And the Prosecutor General’s Office has asked Russia’s Supreme Court to declare the military unit to which most of the captured fighters belong, the Azov Battalion, a terrorist organization. Russian media seized on the Azov Battalion’s ties to far-right movements to lend a veneer of credibility to the Kremlin’s false claims that Russian forces were fighting the Nazis in Ukraine.

Russian threats against the prisoners raised questions about the viability of the terms Ukraine had negotiated with Moscow for surrender, and whether the hundreds of soldiers still inside the steel mill would abide by the deal.

News of Ukraine’s order to surrender to its own fighters, widely regarded in the country as heroes who contemplated deprivation and fate, was greeted with anxiety in the country, where antipathy towards Russia has only deepened since the war.

Many have expressed fear that Mariupol’s last defenders will suffer as prisoners of Russia – although the more likely alternative is certain death inside the steel mills.

“I’m waiting for news and praying,” said Natalia Zarytska, who was part of a delegation of wives and mothers of men inside Azovstal who had called for Turkey’s intervention, which maintains good relations with Russia and Ukraine, to provide a safe escape route for loved ones.

The Ukrainian government sought to tout the valor of the fighters, who refused to surrender until ordered.

“83 days of defense of Mariupol will go down in history as the Thermopylae of the 21st century,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, one of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s top advisers. said on Twitter, referring to the battle of 480 BC. AD in which an outnumbered force of Greeks faced a much larger Persian army. He said the Azovstal defenders had “ruined” Russia’s plan to capture eastern Ukraine and “completely changed the course of the war”.

Still, the fate of captured soldiers could create political problems for Mr. Zelensky, whose leadership throughout the war has boosted his popularity at home and in friendly Western nations.

Mr Putin could also face a tricky decision over the release of any of the captives – even in a prisoner swap – since he has repeatedly sought to portray members of the Azov Battalion as Nazis. Repatriating them could undermine this fictional narrative.

Ukraine’s decision to halt armed defense at the factory appears to end the last vestige of resistance preventing Russia from fully controlling a swathe of southeastern Ukraine stretching from the Russian border to the peninsula of Crimea, which was seized by Russia eight years ago.

Developments in the south underscore the extent of territory Moscow has captured and suggest Ukrainian forces will face great challenges in trying to reclaim it. At the same time, the Ukrainian military was emboldened by its successes against Russian forces elsewhere, so the prospects for a negotiated settlement dimmed.

Both sides acknowledge that the talks have fundamentally collapsed amid publicly aired recriminations.

Along a path stretching more than 800 kilometers between Luhansk in the east and Kherson on the Black Sea, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces were building defensive positions, installing governments loyal to the Kremlin and taking measures to “russify” the population.

In Zaporizhzhia, a region west of Mariupol, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces destroyed roads and bridges to slow Ukrainian counterattacks. Moscow troops also erected concrete barriers and dug trenches around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in the town of Enerhodar, which Russia captured in the first month of the war, a said the Ukrainian nuclear company.

In the Russian-occupied Kherson region, the country’s agricultural heartland, the Ukrainians have been launching counterattacks for weeks, slowly trying to recover lost ground, but have yet to launch a major offensive.

Ukraine’s military said Tuesday night 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 works to switch to defense if necessary.”

Yet Ukrainian forces, backed by a growing flow of heavy weaponry from Western allies, have mounted fierce resistance on other battlefronts, driving Russian forces first from the capital, kyiv, and in recent days from the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

Ukrainian officials said on Tuesday that more than 50 “seriously injured” fighters from Mariupol were being taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, a Ukrainian town near the Russian border controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. Another 211 people were evacuated via a humanitarian corridor to Olenivka, also under Russian control.

Ukrainian officials said the soldiers would be returned to Ukrainian-held territory “as part of an exchange procedure”.

However, it was unclear who guaranteed the safety of the military and whether any procedure had been agreed upon before the evacuation began.

“These 211 people who have been evacuated to Olenivka, their fate is paramount to negotiate at this time,” Kira Rudik, an MP and leader of the Holos party, involved in the Azovstal negotiations, said on Tuesday afternoon.

In recent days, Western countries have reaffirmed their support for Ukraine, and against Russian interests.

The leaders of Sweden and Finland said on Tuesday they would jointly submit their bids to join the NATO alliance this week and travel to Washington to meet President Biden, who strongly supports their plans.

In Brussels, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen urged European Union countries to increase spending in Ukraine to help it deal with the economic crisis and the reconstruction that will be needed due to the invasion Russian.

“Our joint efforts are essential to ensure that Ukrainian democracy prevails over Putin’s aggression,” Yellen said, amid 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. Reporting was provided by Alan Rappeport from Brussels, Safak Timur from Istanbul and Johanna Lemola from Helsinki.



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