‘We’ll fight for them everywhere and always’ The Azovstal defenders currently in Russian captivity — and the women advocating for their release
In mid-May, the Azovstal steel plant became the last bulwark of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol as Ukrainian troops, including from the Azov regiment, sheltered there. On May 16, Azovstal’s defenders started leaving the complex in surrender, and on May 20, the Russian Defense ministry reported that the Azovstal plant had been “completely liberated.” According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, over 2,500 soldiers surrendered. A portion of them are currently being held on the territory of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”; others are in Moscow's Lefortovo remand prison. In an effort to rescue their loved ones, relatives of the captured soldiers have created the Association of Azovstal Defenders' Families. Meduza spoke to its deputy head, Yulia Fedosyuk, wife of Azov fighter Arseniy Fedosyuk, about the ongoing fight to free the soldiers.
In recent weeks, the public has received little news about the Ukrainian soldiers who defended Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant and the civilians hiding inside from February to May, but that’s not because they’re free or even safe. A number of the soldiers are being held on Ukrainian territory controlled by the Russia-backed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), in Olenivka; prisoners more politically valuable to Russia, such as commanders from the Azov regiment, are being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo remand prison, where Russia is reportedly conducting an “investigation." Russian officials and self-proclaimed DNR head Denis Pushilin have spoken of an “international tribunal” and even the death penalty.
Behind the scenes, though, several parties are doing everything they can to ensure the soldiers’ swift release, and leading the charge is an organization called the Association of Azovstal Defenders' Families. Made up of families members of the captive soldiers, the Association’s priorities range from keeping the Azovstal defenders’ fate in the public eye to lobbying officials, through both official and unofficial channels, to put as much pressure on the Russian authorities as possible.
Yulia Fedosyuk, whose husband, Azov fighter Arseniy Fedosyuk, is currently being held in Olenivka, is the Association’s deputy head. She helped Kateryna Prokopenko found the organization soon after they learned the men had been taken captive; Prokopenko’s husband, Denys Prokopenko, was an Azov commander who is now being held in Russia.
“We’ve gathered representatives of all of the units that defended Mariupol; it wasn’t only Azov, it was also the Marines, the State Border Guard, the Security Service, and the National Guard,” Fedosyuk told Meduza. “Now there are over 300 families working with us, and new ones join us every day.”
According to Fedosyuk, Russia is trying to convict Mariupol’s defenders on charges of terrorism and war crimes against civilians in Mariupol. “Russia is trying to cast the blame on our defenders for crimes that were committed by Russian soldiers,” she said. The Association of Azovstal Defenders' Families is in talks with multiple lawyers and organizations about representing the men in court.
One small comfort is that, in Fedosyuk's view, the Russian authorities’ most extreme threats — such as international tribunals and the death penalty — should be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, she said, Denis Pushilin, self-proclaimed head of the DNR, is not a serious person.
“He just blasts certain messages for the sake of increasing his own status and adding tension to the situation,” she said.
There's also the fact of the Russian public, a significant portion of which is hungry for retribution against soldiers they’ve been told are “Nazis.”
“The ‘Z audience’ demands blood and spectacle,” said Fedosyuk. “These kinds of statements are aimed at them. In addition, [the Russian side] has to constantly exaggerate the importance of these prisoners so that they can exchange them for as high a price as possible.”
Still, though, if Russia resumes talk of capital punishment, Fedosyuk and her colleagues will proceed carefully; the stakes are too high to take such proclamations lightly.
“We would respond to the announcement one way or another, because [...] we can’t afford to stay silent about those kinds of threats against our loved ones, even if they’re empty threats. To the degree we’re able, we’re going to fight for them everywhere and always.”
‘It’s all up to a single person’
The family members of most of Mariupol’s defenders have had little to no contact with the soldiers since they were taken captive. Yulia Fedosyuk was able to have a brief conversation with her husband, Arseniy Fedosyuk, when his Russian captors allowed him to make a call from his prison in Olenivka.
“He asked me to open a case for him at the [International Committee of the] Red Cross,” she said. “They have a procedure where you can leave all of the necessary information about your relative — for example, what medicines he needs. When the Red Cross manages to enter the territory where the war criminals are being held, they bring the necessary items. [...] From the speed at which he spoke, it was clear that we didn’t have much time — we spoke for less than a minute.”
According to Yulia Fedosyuk, the prison conditions in Olenivka seem to be fine, at least as prisons go, but the Russian authorities have been uncooperative when it comes to establishing humanitarian corridors to deliver basic necessities to the prisoners.
Meanwhile, the men being held at Moscow’s Lefortovo remand prison haven’t managed to talk to their loved ones at all. Only Azov Commander Denis Prokopenko, whose wife heads the Association of Azovstal Defenders' Families, managed to call his wife on his way out of the Azovstal facility, and even then, the connection was so bad he was hardly able to communicate anything.
“I think this complete isolation from the outside world and from communication with their families is part of the psychological pressure [that Russia is applying against the Azovstal defenders],” Fedosyuk said. “We know that Lefortovo is a remand prison that falls under the purview of the FSB. A prison where [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn was kept. It’s certainly not a nice place.”
The soldiers’ and officers’ isolation has only increased their families’ resolve in advocating for their release. According to Fedosyuk, they have a strategy: with the help of the media, they hope to lobby world leaders to put as much pressure as possible on Vladimir Putin to move forward with a prisoner exchange, even if it requires Ukraine to give up all of the prisoners they currently hold.
“We understand that this decision is up to a single person,” said Fedosyuk. “We can and we must put pressure on him. We believe that if we create a situation in which it’s impossible not to release them, we can ensure that our relatives return home as soon as possible.”
Negotiations for a possible swap are ongoing, with a number of parties involved, including Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate and the Red Cross, which will serve as a guarantor, ensuring that prisoners are kept in decent conditions and the Geneva Conventions are upheld. The Association of Azovstal Defenders' Families has also been in touch with Human Rights Watch, and Fedosyuk said they plan to continue working together, including on arranging a possible trip to the U.S.
Back in mid-May, Fedosyuk and the wives of several other Azovstal defenders met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, where they asked him to help support the soldiers’ evacuation. He reportedly agreed to do what he could, but said the problem was ultimately on the Russian side. While Fedosyuk said she hasn’t ruled out that the Pope could have played a role in the process so far, she believes his main role may come further down the line, when he’s able to travel to Ukraine himself.
For now, it’s up to the Ukrainian authorities to negotiate effectively with Russia — and up to Fedosyuk and her colleagues to keep the pressure on them to do so.
“[Zelensky advisor Mykhailo] Podolyak and the other people we’ve been in contact with have said that the negotiations are ongoing, and that the government is applying the maximum amount of pressure it can in order to expedite the process, but the situation is difficult,” Fedosyuk said. “There are also, shall we say, non-public channels. I can’t give names, but there are people directly involved in the negotiations process; they’re in touch with the head of our association. She’s able to consult with them and find out additional information.”
It’s unclear when Yulia Fedosyuk will see Arseniy again, but she said that if given the chance, she’d be willing to go to Russian-controlled territory, or even Russia proper, for a visit. And despite the ongoing difficulties, she looks back proudly on the Azovstal defenders' perseverance.
"At one point, about 40,000 Russian troops were concentrated in Mariupol," she said. "If our soldiers had given up on defending the city, all of those soldiers would have gone to Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and ultimately to Kyiv. They weren’t just defending a destroyed city — they were defending all of Ukraine."
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale