Analysis of the military campaign | Azovstal: surrender, evacuation, exchange, victory?, by Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde

The departure of the survivors – civilians and combatants – from the Azovstal steelworks, in the city of Mariupol, is being presented very differently by the parties involved. It is a tragic episode, with more symbolic than military weight, about which each of the opposing sides tries to give the version that is most favorable to their interests, but in which it is not even known with certainty how many people have been implicated nor if finally all of them have already left the facilities.

Thus, starting from the approximately one thousand combatants who, according to kyiv, were determined to resist the Russian assault until the last consequences, we are now told that 53 seriously wounded have been transferred by Russia to a facility in Novoazovsk, a Ukrainian area controlled by its local allies, while kyiv ensures that another 211 have been evacuated to a prison in Olenivka, also in Russian hands. It is therefore unknown how many combatants are still encapsulated in the steelworks facilities, just as it is impossible to determine the number of civilians and, above all, what the fate of all of them may be. While kyiv affirms that it will manage to save the rest –We want “living heroes” once their mission was accomplished – and that an agreement had been reached, even with Putin’s personal word, to carry out a prisoner exchange, Russian media insist they will be treated as war criminals and tried for their participation in the fighting – in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.

To the concern generated by the uncertainty about the fate of those who have managed to withstand 82 days of brutal siege joins, once again, the battle for the story of what happened. On the one hand, Russia tries to present it as a victory. It is true that Moscow has now completed control of Mariupol and that makes it easier for Moscow to reach secure a land corridor between Crimea and Russia. But it is also true that this does not lead to a change in the evolution of the battlefield, in which the Russian troops are harvesting, at least, as many setbacks as advances. In other words, Putin would be wrong if he believes that his chances of succeeding in imposing his dictate in Ukraine and even in Donbas now improve.

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On the other hand, Ukraine chooses to talk about evacuation and avoid using the word surrender, praising those he describes as heroes who, with their personal sacrifice, have managed to fix more than a dozen Russian tactical groups on that front for weeks, thus preventing could reinforce other units in the Kharkov area, who have been forced to retreat to Russian territory before the push of the Ukrainian troops. The significance of this setback is considerable because it dismantles once again the Russian plans that, from the north, intended, in combination with a frontal attack from the east and another pincer maneuver from the south, encircle the Ukrainian units deployed in the Donbas. In short, thanks to the resistance in Azovstal, Russia is once again forced to lower the level of ambition of an offensive in which, in any case, it still maintains a hundred tactical groups deployed with a not insignificant combat capacity.

The only clear thing that can be deduced from all this is that today both sides are determined to continue betting on the military option, convinced that they can improve their current positions by means of arms, leaving the negotiations for an indeterminate future.

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