Russia has said that it will not consider any prisoner exchanges of Mariupol’s defenders until they have been “properly convicted and sentenced”.
At least 1,000 Ukrainian fighters, including members of the Azov battalion, were transferred to Russian-held territory last week after the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol was taken by Russian forces.
President Putin initially said that the soldiers would be treated “in line with the relevant international laws”. However, there have since been calls among hardliners in the Russian parliament for the fighters to be regarded as criminals.
Andrei Rudenko, the Russian deputy foreign minister, today gave support to this position, saying that any talk of prisoner swaps would be “premature” before the fighters are tried.
“We will consider all things after those who surrendered to captivity are properly convicted and sentenced,” he said. “Then there may be some other steps.”
Rudenko was responding to a question regarding the possibility of an exchange involving Vadim Shishimarin, 21, a tank commander who was sentenced to life in prison by a Kyiv court for shooting an unarmed man in the early days of the war.
The capture of Azov forces has proved a propaganda coup for Russia. The battalion plays a central role in Moscow’s justification for its invasion, launched with the supposed goal of “denazification”. The founding members of the battalion came from far-right nationalist groups but it is since said to have widened its recruitment.
This week, Russia’s supreme court is expected to hear an application to designate Ukraine’s Azov regiment as a “terrorist organisation”, paving the way for sentences of up to 20 years for those convicted of involvement.
Most of the injured Azov fighters are being held in a prison in Olenivka, a village in Russian-occupied Donetsk, but a smaller group of severely injured fighters are in a hospital in the town of Novoazovsk, also in the region.
Denis Pushilin, head of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, said yesterday that the region was already working, in conjunction with Moscow, to set up tribunals for Ukrainian prisoners. Foreign representatives, including those representing western nations, would be invited to a trial of Ukrainian fighters there, he added.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which exists to examine major crimes, has already announced plans to interrogate the surrendered soldiers without indicating whether they would be treated as suspects.