Ukrainian servicemen sit in a bus after they were evacuated from the besieged Mariupol Azovstal steel plant, near a remand prison in Olyonivka, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)
Russia says that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops who defended a large steel factory in Mariupol have surrendered.
The announcement Wednesday comes as the battle for the strategic port city appeared to be over.
Ukraine refuses to call the action a surrender. The factory had been a symbol of Ukrainian resistance throughout the war.
It is unclear what will happen to the remaining soldiers defending the Azovstal factory. Ukraine hopes for a prisoner exchange, but Russia has said some could be investigated for war crimes.
Both sides are trying to win propaganda victories from what has been one of the most important and deadly battles of the war.
“There can be just one interpretation: The troops holed up at Azovstal are laying down their weapons and surrendering,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.
Russian Defense Ministry video has shown Ukrainian troops carrying out their wounded and being checked for weapons.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the war has not gone well. After failing to capture the capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the war, Putin's troops pulled back. Possible war crimes have been exposed, creating widespread anger and increasing Western opposition to the war.
Ukraine has already begun trying soldiers for war crimes. In the first trial, a Russian soldier pleaded guilty to killing a Ukrainian citizen. He faces up to life in prison.
Putin is now hoping to capture the eastern industrial part of Ukraine, called the Donbas. But Russian troops have not made progress.
Also, Sweden and Finland are deciding to join the NATO military alliance. Finland and Sweden could become members within months. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to block their acceptance. Other members of the 30-country alliance want to move quickly.
Only the factory remained for Russia to declare its capture of Mariupol. Mariupol would give Russia a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. It also would permit the Russian military to place its full attention on battles in the east and south of Ukraine.
For Ukraine, the plant's surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government open to claims that the troops at the factory were abandoned. Zelenskyy had called the troops heroes.
“There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers,” said Volodymyr Fesenko. He is the head of Penta, a research group in Kyiv.
He also warned that a prisoner exchange may not happen.
Russia says it will try to “identify the nationalists” among the Ukrainian soldiers and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians. Russia’s top government lawyer asked the country’s Supreme Court to name Ukraine’s Azov Regiment as a terrorist organization. They were among the troops that defended the Azovstal factory.
Some Azovstal fighters were taken to a former prison colony in territory controlled by Russian-supported separatists. Their legal situation is not clear.
Russia targeted Mariupol at the beginning of the war. The city was largely destroyed. Ukraine says over 20,000 civilians have been killed there. During the attacks, Russian forces launched deadly airstrikes on a hospital. Another strike hit a theater where civilians had taken shelter.
Words in This Story
strategic — adj. related to a general plan to reach a long-term political or military goal
interpretation — n. a way of explaining a situation or happening
abandon — v. to stop supporting or helping someone