MARIUPOL: Nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters have surrendered at the Mariupol steelworks in the past 24 hours, Russia said on Wednesday (May 18th), but leaders are believed to still be locked inside, delaying the end of the battle the longest and bloodiest in Europe for decades.
In the meantime, Finland and Sweden have formally applied to join NATO, resulting in the very expansion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long cited as one of the main reasons he launched “the special military operation” in February.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the surrender of 694 more fighters meant a total of 959 people had now laid down their arms in the sprawling steelworks of Azovstal – the last stronghold of Ukrainian defenders in the city.
If confirmed, the Russian announcement will solve much of the mystery surrounding the fate of hundreds of fighters inside the plant, as Ukraine announced on Tuesday that it had ordered the entire garrison to stand down. . Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, which has so far only confirmed about 250 people to have left the plant, did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.
The leader of the pro-Russian separatists who control the area was quoted by a local news agency as saying that the main commanders inside the factory had not yet surrendered: ‘They haven’t left’ , said the DAN news agency quoting Denis Pushilin.
The final surrender of Mariupol would end a nearly three-month-long siege of the once prosperous city of 400,000, where Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have died under Russian siege and shelling, many of whom are buried in mass graves.
Both Kyiv and Moscow said on Tuesday that around 250 people had left the factory, giving few clues about the fate of hundreds more believed to be inside. Ukraine said it would not reveal their numbers until the rescue operation was completed.
Ukrainian officials have expressed hope for a prisoner swap for Mariupol defenders whom they describe as national heroes. Moscow says no such deal has been reached for the fighters it calls Nazis.
According to Russia, more than 50 injured fighters were taken to a hospital for treatment, and others were taken to a recently reopened prison, both in towns held by pro-Russian separatists. Reuters reporters filmed buses bringing captured fighters to both locations.
The Kremlin says Putin has personally guaranteed the humane treatment of those who surrender, but senior Russian politicians have publicly called for them never to be exchanged, or even executed.
FINLAND AND SWEDEN CANDIDATE FOR NATO
The Swedish and Finnish ambassadors handed over their application letters for NATO membership during a ceremony at the alliance’s headquarters.
“This is a historic moment, which we must seize,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Ratification by the 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say. Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it has reservations about potential new members, including their tolerance of Kurdish militant groups on their soil.
Stoltenberg said he believed the problems could be overcome. Washington also downplayed the likelihood of Turkish objections halting membership.
Finland, which shares a 1,300km border with Russia, and Sweden were both militarily unaligned throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join the alliance represents the biggest shift in European security since decades.
In one fell swoop, this will more than double the alliance’s land border with Russia, give NATO control of nearly the entire Baltic Sea coast, and place NATO guards a few hours away. north of Saint Petersburg.
After weeks in which Russia threatened retaliation over the plans, Putin appeared to back down sharply this week, saying in a speech Monday that Russia had “no problem” with Finland or Sweden, and that their membership to NATO wouldn’t be a problem unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.
The surrender of the Mariupol steel plant allows Putin to claim a rare victory in an otherwise aborted campaign. In recent weeks, Russian forces have abandoned the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and retreated at their fastest pace since being forced out of northern and surrounding kyiv in late March.
Nevertheless, Moscow has continued to press on with its main offensive, trying to capture more territory in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbass region, which it claims on behalf of the separatists it has backed since 2014.
Mariupol, the main port of Donbass, is the largest city Russia has captured so far and gives Moscow full control of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken swath of territory to the east and south from Ukraine.
The siege was the deadliest battle in Europe at least since the wars in Chechnya and the Balkans of the 1990s.
The city’s months of resistance have become a global emblem of Ukraine’s refusal to yield to a much better-armed enemy, while its near total destruction has demonstrated Russia’s tactic of raining fire on the centers of population.
Russia insists it had not agreed to any advance prisoner swaps for Azovstal defenders, many of whom belong to the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian unit spun off from a far-right militia, which the Russia describes as Nazis and accuses of abusing Russian speakers.
“I didn’t know that English had so many ways to express a single message: #Azovnazis surrendered unconditionally,” tweeted Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky.
The TASS news agency reported that a Russian committee planned to question the soldiers as part of an investigation into what Moscow called the “crimes of the Ukrainian regime”.
Leonid Slutsky, one of the Russian negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated fighters “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.