The last defenders of Mariupol were taken to a Russian prison colony yesterday where they faced trial as “Nazi war criminals”.
More than 260 fighters, some of them seriously wounded and carried on stretchers, ended weeks of resistance in the bunkers and tunnels below the Azovstal plant when the most devastating siege of Russia’s war drew to a close.
Seven buses carrying the fighters arrived last night at a former penal colony in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka near Donetsk, Reuters said.
The Tass news agency said the Investigative Committee of Russia, equivalent to the FBI, planned to question the soldiers, many of them members of the Azov Battalion, as part of an investigation into what Moscow calls “Ukrainian regime crimes”.
Ukraine compared the fighters to the Spartans and said they had changed the course of the war by holding back thousands of Russian troops and giving their soldiers critical time to prepare and build defensive positions elsewhere.
The fall of Azovstal — nearly three months after the war began — allowed the complete capture of the port city by the Russians in what they will see as a big strategic success.
Hanna Maliar, a Ukrainian deputy defence minister, said the troops would be swapped in a prisoner exchange. However, some Russian officials said they should be tried or even executed.
Vyacheslav Volodin, one of Russia’s most powerful officials and Speaker of the state Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, said: “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged. They are war criminals and we must do everything to bring them to justice.”
He ordered MPs to draft a law prohibiting the swap of Azovstal troops for Russian prisoners of war.
The office of Russia’s prosecutor-general asked the Supreme Court to recognise the Azov Battalion, one of the groups defending Azovstal, as a “terrorist organisation”, in an apparent attempt to prevent its fighters from being treated as prisoners of war.
Leonid Slutsky, a Russian MP who is one of the negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the combatants “animals in human form” and said they should receive the death penalty.
“They do not deserve to live after the monstrous crimes against humanity that they have committed and that are committed continuously against our prisoners,” he said.
During the siege, many civilians fled the devastated city, some to Russia. Those who did so had to pass through “filtration” camps where anyone believed to have supported Ukraine’s war effort was separated and detained, refugees told The Times.
“When we left Azovstal our first stop was a Russian filtration point,” said Anna Zaitseva, 24. “They searched us, took our fingerprints, they made us take our clothes off – everything including my bra and underwear. They made me explain the meaning of my tattoos. They scanned our phones and downloaded each of our contact lists. Even now I know my phone is being listened to.”
Those suspected of links to the Ukrainian military, police or volunteers were taken for torture and interrogation in Crimea, according to President Zelensky’s adviser on the region, Tamila Tasheva. Members of the 36th Marine Brigade captured during fighting are believed to be held in a detention centre in Sevastopol.
Others simply disappeared during filtration, Ukrainian rights groups said.
“One woman told us her husband was a tattoo artist and had a blue and yellow tattoo,” said Alena Lunova, advocacy director at a coalition of Ukrainian NGOs documenting abductions and disappearances.
“The Russians thought that this was Nazi and he was detained. His wife and two children passed through and one soldier said to her, ‘You will never see your husband again’.”
In Moscow, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not answer questions about whether the Azovstal troops would be treated as war criminals or prisoners of war.
President Putin “guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws”, he said.
The Azov Battalion was formed in 2014 by a Ukrainian neo-Nazi, but has since expanded and is no longer exclusively an extreme-right unit. It has attracted soldiers from all backgrounds. Nonetheless, the battalion has served as a useful propaganda tool for the Kremlin.
Russia’s defence ministry said 265 Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal plant had surrendered, including 51 who were seriously wounded.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said 53 heavily injured fighters were taken to the nearby town of Novoazovsk and another 211 were sent to Olenivka, 55 miles to the north, both areas which were captured by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. It was not clear why there was a discrepancy in the figures.
Ukraine said some fighters remained trapped at the steelworks, and efforts to rescue them were continuing.