Russia’s assertion of Mariupol capture stokes concern among Ukrainian POWs
The seizure claimed by Russia of a steel plant in Mariupol which has become a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a badly needed victory in the war he started, ending a nearly three-month siege that left a city in ruins and more than 20,000 residents feared dead.
After the Russian Defense Ministry announced late Friday that its forces had removed the last Ukrainian fighters from miles of underground factory tunnels, concern has grown for Ukrainian defenders who are now prisoners in the hands of the Russians.
Denis Pushilin, the leader of a region in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, said on Saturday that Ukrainians considered heroes by their fellow citizens were sure to face a court for their war actions.
“I believe a tribunal is inevitable here. I believe that justice must be restored. There is a demand for it from ordinary people, from society and, probably, from the sensible part of the world community,” Russian news agency Tass quoted Pushilin as saying.
Russian officials and state media have repeatedly tried to label the fighters who holed up in the Azovstal steelworks as neo-Nazis. Among the plants more than 2,400 defenders were members of the Azov Regiment, a National Guard unit with far-right roots.
The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim to seize Azovstal, which for weeks remained Mariupol’s last bastion against Ukrainian resistance, and thus achieve Moscow’s long-sought goal of control the citywhich is home to a strategic seaport.
This week, the Ukrainian military told fighters entrenched in the factory, including hundreds of wounded, that their the mission was over and they could go out. He described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.
An end to the Battle of Mariupol would help Putin offset some bitter setbacks, including the failure of Russian troops to take control of Ukraine’s capital kyiv, the sinking of the Russian Navy flagship in the Black Sea and the continued resistance who blocked an offensive in Eastern Ukraine.
The impact of Russia’s declared victory on the wider war in Ukraine remained unclear. Many Russian troops had already been redeployed from Mariupol elsewhere in the conflict, which began with the Russian invasion of its neighbor on February 24.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov reported on Saturday that Russia had destroyed a Ukrainian special operations base in the Black Sea region of Odessa as well as a large stockpile of weapons supplied by the West in the Zhytomyr region of northern Ukraine. There was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.
In its morning operational report, the Ukrainian military staff reported heavy fighting in much of eastern Ukraine, including in the Sievierodonetsk, Bakhmut and Avdiivka regions.
Since failing to capture kyiv, Russia has focused its offensive on the industrial heartland in the east of the country. Russian-backed separatists have controlled parts of the Donbass region since 2014, and Moscow wants to expand the territory under its control.
Taking Mariupol continues Russia’s quest to essentially create a land bridge from Russia through much of the Donbass region bordering Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his gratitude to his American counterpart, Joe Biden, who signed a new $40 billion in aid for the war-ravaged nation. Half of the funding provides military assistance.
Zelenskyy, in remarks to the traumatized nation on Friday evening, again demanded that Russia pay “one way or another for everything it has destroyed in Ukraine. Every burnt house. Every ruined school, every hospital in ruins, every house blown up, culture and infrastructure, every business destroyed.
“Of course, the Russian state won’t even recognize that he is an aggressor,” he continued. “But his recognition is not necessary.”
Mariupol, which is part of Donbass, was blocked at the start of the war and became a chilling example for people in the rest of the country of the hunger, terror and death they could face if the Russians surrounded their communities.
As the end approached at the steel mill, wives of fighters who had resisted recounted what they feared would be their last contact with their husbands.
Olga Boiko, the wife of a Marine, wiped away tears as she shared the words her husband wrote to her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I will contact you and if I will at all. I like You. Kisses. Goodbye.”
The coastal steelworks, occupying some 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), had been a battleground for weeks. Drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, the dwindling group of underarmed fighters resisted with the help of airdrops before their government ordered them to abandon the factory.
Zelenskyy revealed in an interview published on Friday that Ukrainian helicopter pilots braved Russian anti-aircraft fire to transport medicine, food and water to the steelworks, as well as recover bodies and rescue injured fighters. .
A “very large” number of pilots have died during their daring missions, he said. “These are absolutely heroic people, who knew it would be difficult, knew flying would be next to impossible,” Zelenskyy said.
Russia claimed that the commander of the Azov regiment was taken from the factory in an armored vehicle due to local residents’ alleged hatred of him, but no evidence of Ukrainian antipathy towards the nationalist regiment emerged.
The Kremlin seized on the regiment’s far-right origins in its drive to portray the invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian authorities have threatened to bring some of the steel plant’s defenders to justice for alleged war crimes and bring them to justice.
With Russia controlling the city, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in Mariupol, including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater where hundreds of civilians had taken shelter.
Satellite images from April showed what appeared to be mass graves just outside Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians.
Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the factory during the humanitarian ceasefires and spoke of the terror of the relentless shelling, the damp conditions underground and the fear of not being able to survive. come out alive.
At one point during the siege, Pope Francis lamented that Mariupol had become a “city of martyrs”.
It is estimated that 100,000 of the 450,000 people who resided there before the war remain. Many, trapped by Russia’s siege, were left without food, water and electricity.
The chief executive of Metinvest, a multinational that owns the Azovstal plant and another steel mill, Ilyich, in Mariupol, spoke of the devastation in the city in an interview published Saturday in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
“The Russians are trying to clean it (the city) to hide their crimes,” said Metinvest CEO Yuriy Ryzhenkov, quoted by the newspaper. “Residents are trying to make the city work, to make the water work again.”
“But the sewage system is damaged, there has been flooding and infections are to be feared” drinking the water, he said.
The Ilyich steel plant still has infrastructure intact, but if the Russians try to operate it, the Ukrainians will refuse to resume work there, Ryzhenkov said.
“We will never work under Russian occupation,” Ryzhenkov said.