They have spent many weeks underground in fortified tunnels while defending a Ukrainian steel mill against The Russian attacks, clinging to life with increasingly scarce supplies, with little water or food. Their loved ones have met with the Pope and traveled across Europe imploring the evacuation of their husbands and sons from the plant near the besieged city of Mariupol.
On Monday night, those pleas were partially answered when more than 260 defenders of the Azovstal steelworks, one of the largest in Europe, surrendered and were taken into Russian-occupied territory. At least 52 were injured. The fighters are expected to return home through a prisoner exchange, Ukrainian authorities said.
For the troops remaining in Azovstal, estimated to number in the hundreds, the combat mission is over, Ukrainian authorities said, marking the end of one of the toughest battles since Russia’s invasion began on February 24. Azovstal had come to symbolize the country itself in its struggle against a much larger military power.
Now Ukraine says it will do everything to ensure that everyone still in Azovstal returns. “We hope to save our boys’ lives,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said early Tuesday. “Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes.”
But those promises were compared with a more complicated reality. Surviving crushing Russian attacks in dank tunnels cut off from the rest of Ukraine, Azovstal’s defenders have underpinned the country’s broader military effort. The attempt to crush their resistance has occupied the attention of thousands of Russian troops who have stayed nearby rather than fight elsewhere.
It is of “critical importance” to Ukraine that those still at the badly damaged steel plant remain there, Dmytro Lubinets, a local political leader who chairs a parliamentary committee on human rights, unemployment and reintegration of temporarily occupied territories, in an interview on Tuesday.
Situated next to Mariupol, the city now occupied by Russian forces after a long siege that killed thousands, Azovstal remains an island under Ukrainian control in a region that Russian forces are moving quickly to annex to Moscow.
The plant “remains Ukrainian,” Metinvest, the Ukrainian company that owns Azovstal, said in a statement Tuesday.
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Azovstal defenders “want to continue defending their land,” Lubinets said, and there is no obvious option for them to leave. “All I can say is that those people made the decision to continue fighting there and they are sacrificing their lives there.”
Many are members of Ukraine’s controversial Azov regiment, which has far-right associations and has fought Russian-backed forces since 2014. The Kremlin calls it a neo-Nazi organization. Family members say their husbands are simply patriotic, and they fear torture or worse if their loved ones surrender to Russian forces.
Another reason to doubt the soldiers’ ability to leave Azovstal safely came Tuesday from the Russian parliament, which said it will consider banning prisoner swaps for members of the Azov regiment. The Russian Prosecutor General’s office requested that the Supreme Court recognize the regiment as a “terrorist organization”, state media reported.
Even those who have already been evacuated face uncertain prospects.
Russia and Ukraine only reached a verbal agreement on the 260 fighters bused in from Azovstal on Monday, Lubinets said, and there is no definitive timeline for when a prisoner swap might happen.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered personal guarantees to meet international standards in the treatment of people removed from the steel plant, the Kremlin said.
Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, confirmed Tuesday afternoon that no prisoner swap had yet taken place, but declined to comment on the nature of the deal with Russia.
The continued uncertainty has done little to reassure the wives and mothers, dubbed the “Azov wives”, who have become international advocates for those who work at the steel mill. On Tuesday, several gathered alongside dozens of supporters outside the Chinese embassy in kyiv, demanding Beijing’s help in evacuating their loved ones. One held a banner written in Chinese characters calling on the people of China to “stop the genocide.” There were no signs of life inside the embassy.
Liliia Stupina’s husband, Andrii, has been in Azovstal and only in sporadic contact through text messages. The most recent came a week ago, when he told her that he and his teammates were still going strong. She does not believe that Andrii was injured and she doubts that he was evacuated. But she doesn’t know where he is.
Lyudmyla Dmytrivna’s son Anatolii has been among the injured fighters in Azovstal, he lost a leg. But he has told her that he will never give up. “Give up for what?” she said. “To be executed? That’s not the way to go.”
Those who were already taken from Azovstal have been plucked “from hell,” said Kateryna Vasyliivna, the organizer of the protest at the embassy. “But we don’t know where they have been evacuated to now, and if it will be better for them.” Her husband has been to Azovstal, but she, like others, does not know her current location.
Being sent to Russian-occupied territory amounts to “captivity,” Vasyliivna said. “We hope that a third party can perform an extraction. That is what we are urging, and that is what we are fighting for.”
The battle for Azovstal has taken place against the backdrop of Russia’s move to rapidly assert control of neighboring Mariupol, a port city strategically located between Russian territory and the Crimean peninsula annexed in 2014.
That has included inviting Mariupol residents to make simplified applications for Russian passports and quickly sending textbooks to schools that refer to the city as part of Russia’s Rostov Oblast, said Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the exiled mayor of the town.
“They are trying to do a direct annexation,” he said. Moscow wants to “integrate Mariupol into the Russian Federation”. However, the successes of the Ukrainian army in fighting Russian forces far from Kyiv and then from Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, have reinforced optimism that Mariupol is not lost.
Such belief is not simply hope, said Mr Andriushchenko, who fled the city in March. “It is the confidence that this year we will return to Mariupol and he will be released.”
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