They held out for weeks. But in recent days, hundreds of Ukrainian fighters have emerged from a Mariupol steel mill that had served as a stronghold. The Red Cross is on the scene, working to register each individual as a prisoner of war (POW). The registration will help to protect the Ukrainians after their surrender.
The Switzerland-based Red Cross operates as a kind of guardian of the Geneva Conventions during war time. That body of international laws aims to ensure humane treatment of civilians, prisoners of war, and other non-combatants during conflict. The Red Cross didn’t specify how many POWs it had registered from the Mariupol plant, but said they numbered in the hundreds. The process included getting personal details from the soldiers. That helps the organization stay in touch with their relatives. The group also says that its team did not transport the fighters “to the places where they are held.”
A monthslong siege of Mariupol left the port city in ruins. The drama of last-ditch fighters at a steel plant holding off Russian forces turned the strategic port into a worldwide symbol of suffering and defiance. With Ukraine saying their mission is complete, the fighters have been told to save their lives. International attention is focused now on how they will be treated by Russia.
The Russian military said that a total of 1,730 Ukrainian troops at the Azovstal steelworks have surrendered since Monday. At least some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists (residents of Ukraine who are loyal to Russia). A separatist official said that those who needed medical assistance were hospitalized.
While Ukraine says it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia has threatened to investigate some for war crimes.
It’s not clear how many fighters are now left in the underground tunnels and bunkers at the plant. Russia previously estimated that it was battling some 2,000 troops at the site.
Emptying the plant would allow Russia to claim complete control of Mariupol, a long-sought victory. Moscow has seen a series of setbacks in its military plans after facing stiffer than expected Ukrainian resistance. Kyiv’s troops, bolstered by Western weapons, thwarted Russia’s initial goal of taking the capital. The Ukrainian military has since bogged Russia down in the Donbas, the eastern region that President Vladimir Putin now has his sights on.
With his troops making only slow progress on the battlefield, Putin has also lost ground on the diplomatic front. Sweden and Finland abandoned generations of being militarily nonaligned and asked to join NATO, fearing that Russia might not stop with Ukraine.
But their accession to the Western military alliance has run into trouble. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated his opposition on Thursday to the Nordic nations’ joining. Each of NATO’s 30 countries has an effective veto over new members.
Meanwhile, in the first war crimes trial held by Ukraine, a captured Russian soldier testified that he shot an unarmed Ukrainian civilian on his officer’s orders. The 21-year-old member of a Russian tank unit, Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, asked the victim’s widow to forgive him. He pleaded guilty to the crime.
(On Thursday, May 19, 2022, Ukrainian servicemen leave the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine. They were registered on site by the Red Cross as Russian prisoners of war. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)