Ukraine’s leaders celebrated the release of scores of its soldiers who led a last-ditch defence of the city of Mariupol at the Azovstal steelworks four months ago as part of an overnight prisoner exchange.
Kyiv secured the freedom of 215 of its personnel in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners of war and Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian MP and tycoon who was arrested this year on treason charges. Medvedchuk is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The Azov battalion, whose ranks include self-declared nationalists and non-ethnic Ukrainians, is the military unit that fought Russian troops at a steel mill in a final attempt to defend the strategic port city of Mariupol in south-east Ukraine after months of heavy bombardment.
“Finally, we were able to return another part of the defenders of Mariupol, including the fighters of the Azov regiment,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late on Wednesday night. “Tonight, the exchange that we had been waiting for [for] so long took place.”
The prisoner exchange is a boost for the Ukrainian leader who had promised to secure the release of the Azovstal defenders — lauded by many Ukrainians as heroes — after they finally surrendered to Russian forces in May following dogged resistance.
However, the deal was awkwardly timed for Putin who hours earlier raised the stakes in his war against Ukraine by ordering a partial mobilisation to bolster Russia’s weakened invasion force. Moscow has repeatedly sought to justify its invasion of Ukraine, launched in February, by claiming that it seeks to “de-Nazify” the country.
“The main question for me is how the Kremlin managed to carry out an exchange and return ‘bloody Nazis’ on the day when he [Putin] announced the mobilisation to fight Nazism?,” Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s presidential administration, wrote on Twitter. “It was difficult to imagine such a major blow to the motivation of the mobilised.”
The release of Ukraine’s Azov commanders caused outrage in Russian nationalist circles.
Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence operative who has become an outspoken critic of the Kremlin’s handling of the war, denounced the timing of the exchange as “worse than a crime, worse than a mistake, it is incredible stupidity”.
Margarita Simonyan, editor of Russia’s RT news channel, bemoaned the lack of ceremony for returning Russian PoWs and said Moscow had “lost the information battle” over the prisoner swap.
“Why were the commanders of Azov given away? Here I don’t know. I hope it was worth it,” Simonyan wrote on her Telegram channel.
Zelenskyy later thanked Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for helping to broker the deal.
Under the agreement, five of the top Ukrainian commanders from the Azovstal siege — who delivered frequent accounts through social media of their resistance fight in appalling conditions — will be required to stay in Turkey until the end of the war.
Zelenskyy also thanked Saudi Arabia for its role in securing the release of five Britons, two Americans, one Moroccan, a Swede and a Croatian who had been fighting for the Ukrainian army when they were captured by Russian forces or fighters from the Russian-occupied territories.
Two of the Britons, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, along with a Moroccan named Brahim Saadoun, were sentenced to death by a court in Russian-occupied territory in June for fighting as “mercenaries”.
Zelenskyy defended the release of Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin opposition leader and tycoon whose Russian-language television channels were shut down last year in a move that enraged the Kremlin.
Denis Pushilin, head of the Moscow-controlled separatists in Donetsk, admitted he “understood the emotions” of people outraged that Russia gave up the Azov fighters, but said “the lives of our guys are the most important thing”, according to Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow and Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv