- Share to or
‘It was the only option’ Russia casts doubt on prisoner exchange for soldiers from Ukraine’s Azov regiment
After weeks of defending the Azovstal steel plant as Ukraine’s last stronghold in Mariupol, soldiers from the Azov Battalion began leaving the site on May 16. The troops were evacuated into Russian-controlled territory as part of what Kyiv describes as an ongoing “rescue operation.” However, officials in Russia and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) have cast doubt on the possibility of swapping these soldiers in a prisoner exchange, calling instead for Azov troops to face a “tribunal” and even capital punishment.
Where are Azovstal’s defenders now?
Early reports about the evacuation of Ukrainian troops from the Azovstal steel plant said that some 50 wounded were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, while the remainder were taken to Olenivka (both of these towns are under the control of the self-proclaimed DNR). On Wednesday, May 18, the Russian Defense Ministry released videos said to be from the hospital in Novoazovsk, which showed men lying in beds; some of them said that they were being given medical treatment and food, and that they were being treated “normally.”
On Thursday, May 19, the Russian Defense Ministry posted another video, with the caption “Captured fighters from the nationalist ‘Azov’ unit talk about conditions of detention.” The video showed a room full of men, standing among dense rows of bunk beds; some of them spoke directly into the camera, describing the conditions of detention as good and saying that they’re being treated properly. Where the video was filmed remains unconfirmed, although the Russian state news agency TASS claimed it was recorded in Olenivka. That said, it’s mentioned in the video that there are wounded soldiers at this detention facility.
According to media reports, the Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from Azovstal are being held at a former penal colony in Olenivka. Earlier, on May 15, Ukrainian officials said that more than 3,000 Mariupol residents had been sent to this “filtration prison,” rendering it overcrowded.
On May 17–18, however, Russian media published unofficial reports that Azov soldiers had been transferred to remand prisons in the Rostov region. RT correspondent Valentin Gorshenin claimed that they had been sent to Rostov-on-Don’s Detention Facility No. 1., and the outlet 161.ru cited an unnamed source in law enforcement who said that 89 Azov soldiers had been sent to Taganrog and would be “distributed further” from there.
At this writing, there has been no official confirmation from the Russian side that Azov soldiers and other Ukrainian troops are being held in remand prisons. However, there have been numerous earlier reports of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians captured by Russian troops being sent to detention facilities in Russia’s border regions.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal have surrendered since May 16.
Pushback from Moscow
On May 16, Ukrainian officials said that troops evacuated from the Azovstal stronghold would be swapped in a prisoner exchange. However, the next day, Russian lawmakers raised the issue of barring soldiers from the Azov Battalion from prisoner exchanges altogether. State Duma deputy Anatoly Vasserman suggested “adopting a resolution or even a law prohibiting the exchange of any Nazi criminals.” He was supported by parliamentary speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who said that “Nazi criminals shouldn’t be exchanged” and that these “war criminals” should be put on trial.
The lawmakers also scheduled the consideration of a draft resolution that prohibit the exchange of “Nazi criminals” for May 18, but this never actually occured (the potential legal force of this document also remains unclear).
That same day, lawmaker Leonid Slutsky — who is a member of the Russian delegation in the stalled peace talks with Ukraine — suggested “making an exception to the moratorium on the death penalty in Russia” for Azov fighters. In a similar vein, Russian senator Andrey Klishas called for putting the “neo-Nazis from Azov” on trial in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” — where there is no moratorium on capital punishment. In turn, DNR leader Denis Pushilin said that the fate of “war criminals” and “nationalists” should be decided by a court or an “international tribunal.”
The Russian Attorney General’s Office has also asked the Supreme Court to recognize “Azov” as a terrorist organization and outlaw its activities in Russia.
‘Delicacy and time’
Whereas Russian officials maintain that the Ukrainian troops from the Azovstal plant “surrendered as prisoners,” Ukrainian officials continue to refer to their evacuation as a “rescue mission.” At the same time, Ukrainian authorities have been very cautious about making statements since the moment Azov soldiers began leaving the site.
Based on the statements made so far, it’s clear that Kyiv expects these soldiers to be released as the result of a prisoner exchange. According to Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, Ukraine “will conduct an operation to return” the Azov fighters to territory controlled by Kyiv. “The current plan is the only way to save Azovstal defenders. It was the only option,” she told journalists on May 17. Earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the operation “requires delicacy and time,” adding that “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”
On May 18, Deputy Defense Minister Malyar urged Ukrainians to disregard Russian claims about Azovstal’s defenders as “political statements made for their propaganda effect and to achieve the propaganda goal for domestic Russian consumption.”
“I understand that everyone wants to know at least some information, but the rescue operation is still underway. That’s first and foremost. Secondly, negotiations are underway, because the rescue operation itself has several difficult stages,” Malyar assured. “This process is very sensitive. Any information we make public can be detrimental to both the process and our defenders.”
Update. On Thursday, May 19, deputy commander of the Azov regiment Sviatoslav Palamar reported that there are still Ukrainian soldiers at the Azovstal plant and that an “operation is underway.” Palamar declined to give further details.
- Share to or