Kyiv is holding out hope for a prisoner swap to bring home fighters who long held their ground in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, a final holdout before Russia finalized its capture of the city this week in a negotiated surrender. But Russian officials on Wednesday cast doubt on the possibility of an exchange.
Russia said nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters had so far exited the plant in Mariupol. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the claim. At least 260 fighters, many seriously wounded and lying on stretchers, ended their weeks-long defense of the besieged facility on Monday as Kyiv announced the end of the battle there.
While Ukraine said delicate evacuation talks were ongoing, uncertainty loomed over the fighters’ fate. Details about the terms of their surrender remained under wraps, but Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk had indicated they would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war once ‘’their condition stabilizes.’’
It’s unclear how many still remain at the plant, which provided shelter for Ukrainian forces including from the Azov Regiment, a militia with far-right ties. Ukrainian authorities have previously said that nearly 1,000 fighters were inside. Civilians were rescued under an earlier agreement.
A video shared by Russia’s defense ministry on Wednesday appeared to show a column of Ukrainian fighters marching in Mariupol on a road littered with debris. Russian troops patted them down before they boarded buses. Some of the Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be injured. The Post could not confirm the date on which the video was recorded.
Russia advanced into most of Mariupol over weeks, after a prolonged siege and shelling. The port city on the Sea of Azov helps secure a strategic land bridge from the Russian border to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.
The Kremlin has described the exit of the fighters from Mariupol as a victory. Civilians who made it out of the plant this month recounted surviving the siege in a bunker without sunlight, as food and water supplies shrank.
Before the evacuation, Moscow may have created expectations that Russian forces would destroy the outgunned Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
On Wednesday, a separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, whose forces are fighting alongside Moscow, said a court should decide the fate of fighters, including ‘’those who appear to be nationalists,’’ according to a local news agency in the breakaway region. He told reporters there were plans to demolish the steel plant.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, also said the highest-level Ukrainian commanders had not yet left the plant.
His comments came after pushback from some Russian officials on the possibility of a swap. In Moscow, the speaker of the Russian State Duma, or lower house, Vyacheslav Volodin, said Tuesday that Ukrainian ‘’Nazi criminals’' should not be a part of an exchange. Russian investigators said they would interrogate the Ukrainian troops for alleged crimes. And Russian news agencies said the prosecutor general asked the country’s top court to designate the Azov Regiment as a terrorist group. When the Kremlin cast the war on Ukraine as a quest to ‘’de-Nazify’' the country, it was referring in part to the nationalist Azov Regiment.
Amnesty International on Tuesday warned that Russian characterizations of Ukrainian soldiers in the Mariupol area as ‘’neo-Nazis’' raises ‘’serious concerns over their fate as prisoners of war.’’
‘’Amnesty International has documented summary killings of captives by Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine,’’ the organization said in a statement. ‘’The soldiers who surrendered today must not meet the same fate.’’
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin guaranteed the treatment of the Mariupol fighters would be ‘’consistent with the respective international laws.’’
International law requires that prisoners of war be treated humanely and protected from violence, intimidation, insults, and ‘’public curiosity.’’ After a conflict ends, prisoners should be repatriated swiftly.
Russia is party to the Geneva Conventions, which lay out those rules. Moscow does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, but the court does have the authority to investigate and prosecute events that take place in Ukraine. Countries that signed on to the Geneva Conventions have an obligation to put Russian officials on trial in national courts if they violate the law on prisoners of war, according to Todd Buchwald, a law professor at George Washington University and former head of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice.
Videos posted by the Russian defense ministry to its Telegram channel appear to show wounded soldiers in the hospital in Novoazovsk, a nearby town controlled by Russian-backed separatists, where Russian officials said dozens of injured soldiers who evacuated the steel plant had been taken. In the videos, the men say in Russian that they are being treated well and examined by doctors.
Putting prisoners of war on camera could violate international law. Rights groups and legal experts criticized Ukraine earlier in the spring for filming dead and captured Russian soldiers.
Prisoner exchanges provide a way to bring detained soldiers home before the fighting stops. Russia and Ukraine have carried out several since the invasion began, including one this month that traded an unspecified number of Russian soldiers for 28 Ukrainian military personnel and 13 civilians in Russian custody, according to Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister.