Ending one of the most dramatic battles of the Ukraine war, hundreds of Ukrainian fighters, many seriously wounded, gave up their weeks-long defense of a besieged steel plant in the strategic port city of Mariupol on Monday and were taken to Russian-controlled territory, while hundreds more remained trapped in the plant Tuesday as negotiations continued over their fate.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address. “We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys. Among them are the seriously wounded. They are being provided with medical aid.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry portrayed the exit of 264 Ukrainian soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant as a surrender and a Russian victory. To Ukrainian officials, the fighters were heroes whose desperate last stand changed the course of the war, by tying up Russian forces for weeks in the battle for Mariupol, preventing them from sweeping across southern Ukraine.
Russia won effective control of Mariupol weeks ago, securing a crucial land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it annexed in 2014. But the fate of fighters trapped in tunnels under the steel plant became a desperate symbol of Ukrainians’ will to fight and die for their land, a key factor in Ukraine’s military successes against Russia’s larger, more powerful army.
Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steel Works and its network of underground tunnels served as a shelter and final foothold for hundreds of Ukrainian fighters, including many from the controversial far-right Azov Regiment, as well as trapped civilians.
They were holed up in the facility for weeks under an intense Russian assault, before all women, children and elderly people were evacuated under an agreement earlier this month. Those who made it to safety described a brutal siege in cold and fetid bunkers, where they lived without sunlight as food and water supplies dwindled.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s involvement in the Azovstal siege underscored his increasingly hands-on role in decisions on the war, after he last month declared victory in Mariupol and ordered Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to seal the steel plant so “that even a fly could not get through.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that the fate of Ukrainian fighters had been raised in numerous phone calls to Putin, adding that the president said those who surrendered could leave, guaranteeing that their treatment would be “consistent with the respective international laws.”
The bombardment of the Azovstal plant appears to have persisted in recent days. Videos posted to Telegram by local officials over the weekend showed white, brightly burning munitions raining down on the plant. The type of munitions could not be independently verified, but a British military expert told Reuters it looked like an attack with phosphorus or incendiary weapons.
Under Monday’s agreement, dozens of buses were seen leaving the plant in an evacuation coordinated with the help of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Anna Malyar, said 53 seriously wounded soldiers were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, a nearby town controlled by Russian-backed separatists. An additional 211 were transported to another Russian-aligned village, Olenivka, she said. Ukrainian officials said they are seeking to broker a prisoner swap to secure their release.
“After their condition stabilizes, we will exchange them for Russian prisoners of war,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Tuesday.
The fate of hundreds more fighters holed up in the steel factory hangs in the balance. While it was unclear how many were still inside Azovstal, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said negotiations on extracting the remaining troops were very difficult but ongoing. “There is definitely hope,” he said in a televised interview. Ukrainian authorities said last week that nearly 1,000 holdout fighters were in the plant.
Although Russia portrayed it as a victory, Mariupol as a whole has been a reputational disaster for Russia’s military, after a long and brutal campaign that left the city largely in ruins, with Ukrainian fighters in the steel plant denying it final control over the last corner.
Russian journalist Alexander Sladkov told Vesti state television news that “very serious and important people” took part in the decisions to allow the combatants to leave the plant. He reported that 2,050 had been inside, 404 of them wounded, including 55 seriously injured fighters who could not walk, numbers that could not be independently confirmed. There were 200 dead bodies in a refrigerator, he reported.
Yehor Cherniev, a legislator from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party and the chairman of Ukraine’s delegation to the NATO parliamentary assembly, gave a different number, saying 700 combatants remained in the complex.
“Of course, it’s a great step for us to save our soldiers,” he said, adding that the key was now to evacuate those remaining.
He said Monday’s evacuation could save faltering peace talks, as both Russia and Ukraine said Tuesday that negotiations had paused.
“A few weeks ago, there was a statement by President Zelensky, that if the Azovstal soldiers will be killed, there are no way to any peace negotiations,” Cherniev said. “Right now we have some movement and results in this process. So maybe Russia understands quite clearly the situation that they have in Ukraine — to save this option of peace negotiations.”
There were few signs of progress in the talks, however, as each side blamed the other for the impasse.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said Tuesday that there were no talks “in any form” because Kyiv has “practically withdrawn” from the negotiations.
Podolyak, a key member of Ukraine’s delegation to the talks, confirmed that they are on hold, blaming Russian intransigence. He implied that if Russia tries to keep fighting, it faces defeat and collapse.
“Russia does not understand that in any sense, the war is no longer going according to Russia’s rules, schedule or plans,” Podolyak said. “The resistance of Ukraine … is only growing. Therefore, the Russian Federation will not achieve any of its goals.” He added that Russia’s elite was afraid to tell the truth to its population about the war.
Russian political analyst Dmitri Trenin, of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, said the military significance of the steel plant was minimal but “the psychological significance of the de facto surrender of the Ukrainian forces is huge” for Russia, after failed efforts by Ukraine to extract its forces through military or diplomatic means.
He said most of the Russian forces tied up in Mariupol had moved to other parts of the eastern flank earlier, when Russia gained control of the rest of the city. Russia was now prepared for a long fight “to secure at minimum the entire east and south of Ukraine” from Kharkiv to Odessa.
Serhiy Zgurets, a Ukrainian military analyst, cautioned against overstating the military significance of the evacuation, but said it had “ideological” importance for both sides.
For Ukraine it was not a victory but a “difficult compromise connected to an attempt to preserve the lives of the fighters,” he said. For its part, he said, Russia could say “they were able to force the Ukrainians to compromise in some respect.”
He estimated that the battle for Azovstal had for weeks engaged some 1,200 Russian troops who could have been fighting elsewhere.
Moscow said the evacuation from the Mariupol facility followed an order from the Ukrainian military command for its troops to surrender.
Despite Peskov’s claim that the combatants would be treated in line with international law, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian State Duma, or lower house of parliament, said Ukrainian “Nazi criminals” should not be part of any prisoner exchange, while a lawmaker proposed banning a swap.
With nationalist forces in Russia bitterly opposed to any prisoner exchange with members of the Azov Regiment, Russia’s Investigative Committee, the nation’s top investigations unit, announced that criminal investigators would interrogate combatants who “surrendered” and left the Azovstal plant “as part of the investigation into criminal cases concerning crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime against the civilian population” of Donbas.
Ukraine’s military leaders hailed the fighters in the city for keeping Russian forces at bay long enough to buy crucial time for troops fighting elsewhere, and Podolyak credited them with changing “the course of the war.” Russia has yet to make significant gains in eastern Ukraine, where it has concentrated its resources for weeks.
“Mariupol defenders are heroes of our time,” Ukraine’s military command said. “They are forever in history.”
Ellen Francis, Annabelle Chapman, Adam Taylor, Niha Masih and Louisa Loveluck contributed to this report.