The conflict that turned Mariupol into a worldwide image of defiance and suffering brought to a climax on Monday, when Russia announced that over 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian rebels who had been trapped within a crushed steel mill had surrendered.
Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to face war crimes charges in Ukraine pled guilty to killing a civilian on Wednesday and faces life in jail. For fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop with Ukraine, Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, abandoning years of neutrality.
The fate of the Ukrainian fighters that emerged from the damaged Azovstal steelworks after being instructed by their troops to evacuate the city’s last bastion of resistance remains uncertain. The Russians took some of them to a former prison camp in territory controlled by insurgents backed by Moscow.
While Ukraine expressed hope for a prisoner swap, Russia vowed to prosecute some of the soldiers for war crimes.
According to Amnesty International, the combatants should be provided prompt access to the Red Cross. Amnesty International’s regional director for the region, Denis Krivosheev, noted reported illegal executions by Russian forces in Ukraine, saying the Azovstal defenders “must not suffer the same fate.”
It was unclear how many fighters were still trapped inside the plant’s maze of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were thought to have been holed up at one time. No major commanders have emerged from the steelworks, according to a separatist leader in the area.
The facility was the only thing preventing Russia from proclaiming Mariupol fully captured. Mariupol’s collapse would make Moscow’s forces the most powerful in Ukraine, providing Putin a boost in a conflict when many of his plans have gone astray.
Military analysts, on the other hand, believe that the city’s seizure would be more symbolic than anything else at this time, because Mariupol is already fully under Moscow’s authority, and most of the Russian forces stranded by the drawn-out combat have already fled.
Since Monday, 959 Ukrainian troops have left the position, according to Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.
The fighters were seen carrying their wounded on stretchers and going through pat-down searches before being carried away by military trucks bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.
According to a US official familiar with the results, the US has obtained intelligence showing that some Russian authorities are concerned that Kremlin forces in Mariupol are abusing the city, including beating and electrocuting city officials and stealing residences.
According to the person, who was not allowed to talk, Russian officials are afraid that the abuses may incite people to fight the occupation, and that the treatment contradicts Russia’s assertions that its force has liberated Russian speakers.
Resistance combat was reported in the captured southern city of Melitopol, where Ukrainians killed many high-ranking Russian soldiers and a Russian armored train carrying troops and weapons overturned, forcing the explosives to detonate, according to the regional military administration.
According to the administration, the Russian military does not maintain the tracks and overloads the trains, and the train derailed “with support” from resistance fighters. The reports could not be verified independently.
The US Embassy in Kyiv reopened on Wednesday, one month after Russian soldiers abandoned their attempt to occupy the capital and three months after the embassy was closed, in a symbol of normalcy returning to the city. The American flag was raised with solemnity by a dozen embassy staff. Embassies from other Western countries have also reopened in Kyiv.
Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old Russian tank unit member, pleaded guilty in Kyiv to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through a car window in the early days of the war. According to Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, 40 new war crimes cases are being prepared.
On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden might join NATO in a matter of months, though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objections threaten to derail the process. Turkey accuses both countries of hosting Kurdish militants and others who pose a security threat to Turkey.
Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser and spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, said the membership applications will make “no advance” unless Turkey’s objections are addressed. Each of NATO’s 30 member states has a veto over new members.
Mariupol’s defenders clung to the steel factory against the odds for months, preventing Russia from completing its takeover of the city and port.
Its complete acquisition would provide Russia with an uninterrupted land connection to the Crimean Peninsula, which it took from Ukraine in 2014. It would also allow Russia to concentrate entirely on the wider struggle for Ukraine’s industrial east, the Donbas.
The order to surrender the soldiers might expose President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government to accusations that it abandoned the troops he praised as heroes.
“Zelensky could face difficult problems,” warned Volodymyr Fesenko, the chairman of Kyiv’s independent Penta think tank. “There have been grumblings and charges of betrayal of Ukrainian forces.”
He warned that a hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through.
The primary federal investigating authority in Russia said it plans to question the surrendering troops in order to “identify the nationalists” and see if they were involved in crimes against civilians.
In addition, Russia’s top prosecutor has petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to declare Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, which was part of the Azovstal garrison, a terrorist group. In the far right, the regiment has its origins.
The Russian parliament was supposed to debate a resolution prohibiting the exchange of any Azov Regiment fighters on Wednesday, but it didn’t.
The Russians had set their sights on Mariupol from the start. The city has been mostly reduced to rubble by persistent shelling, with Ukraine claiming that over 20,000 civilians have been killed there. The city had a prewar population of roughly 430,000 people, which has since been decimated by about three-quarters.
In other news, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov claimed on national television that Russia has begun testing a prototype new laser weapon capable of reaching a target 5 kilometers (3 miles) away. He claims it was tested against a drone on Tuesday and destroyed it in five seconds.
Borisov claims that a new generation of laser weapons will help Russia to save money on its expensive long-range missiles in the future.
In his weekly video message late Wednesday, Zelensky compared Russia’s boast to Nazi Germany’s promises of Wunderwaffe, or “wonder weapons,” as the tide turned against it during World War II.
According to a senior US defense official, the US has seen no evidence to back up the assertions. To discuss the US military assessment, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity.